Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Day 287 – A hand-made brooch and a painted rock. (Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary)

We had had a very tense few weeks what with the deadline of Christmas and New Year hanging over us, forcing us to rush through the Balkans and lock in accommodation, so whilst we’d had a good time in Prague, it was kind of a relief to hit the road again. Having reached Central Europe, we were becoming a bit sick of being back on the tourist trail after so long off it, so we were looking forward to heading out East towards Romania, Moldova, Transdniestria and Ukraine.

Leaving Prague, we seized the opportunity to pick up a hitch-hiker. Elena was a Romanian girl around our age, living in Bratislava, but on holiday in Prague and Vienna for New Year. Her friends had caught public transport between the two cities, but we were very happy she had decided to hitch-hike, giving us the opportunity to meet her. Greatly enjoying her company, we adjusted our route slightly to take her as close to Vienna as we could without getting stuck in traffic. Although we were only with her for a couple of hours, Elena is definitely one of the memorable people we’ve met on this trip, and a testament as to why picking up hitch-hikers is just another fantastic opportunity to meet exciting new people.

It’s funny being sad to farewell someone you didn’t even know existed two hours previously, but we were. Elena gifted us with a hand-made brooch and a painted rock and we dropped her off at a spot we thought would be good for getting another lift. And what a good spot it was, as by the time we drove one or two km’s to do a u-turn, then passed back by where we’d left her, she was already gone!

We continued onto Slovakia, taking the opportunity to camp which we hadn’t had for a few weeks. We stopped for dinner in the small town of Kostoliste, and for the first time in a very long time had to order from a menu with no English on it, to a waitress who didn’t speak a word of English. After getting used to the luxury of English speaking Europeans over the past few weeks, it was an oddly refreshing challenge to be thrown back in with this type of language barrier. We found a fantastic camping spot in a forest and we had one of our favourite camping nights, just sitting outside with a few drinks, telling stories, making jokes, and jovially chatting into the wee hours of the morning.

We wanted to make a quick stop in Bratislava the following day, the city that until this trip we had all deemed Europe’s most boring capital. Having explored more of Eastern and South Eastern Europe though now, we realise that there are in fact a few other contenders. Podgorica, Montenegro is right up there, along with Chisinau, Moldova. Tiraspol, Transdniestria, if you count that as a country, would probably take the cake, and Tirana, Albania and Sofia, Bulgaria weren’t exactly exciting. Don’t get me wrong – each of these places do have certain charming aspects, and some of the social and political history is nail-biting; I’m not saying they’re bad places, and we actually had some fantastic times in these places thanks to the people we met. If you rock up though with no idea of what to do or where to go, and no one to show you around, you won’t really find anything other than a pretty town centre or scenic surroundings (in some examples).

After spending our allocated 90 minutes in Bratislava (including lunch in a cafe), we headed for Hungary, planning to make it to Budapest by the late afternoon to collect Ben’s forgotten shoes and some Christmas mail that had been sent to Tom Unkles’ family but hadn’t arrived in time. On the way out of Bratislava though we accidentally missed the turn onto the motorway, and thinking we could just take the next one kept going. As we left the outskirts of the tiny city though, much to our amusement we found ourselves back in Austria. I’m always intrigued how a town that is essentially a suburb of a city in a different country, just looks completely different. This Austrian town, despite Bratislava being the closest centre and being able to see the city from there, looks and feels completely Austrian; all the signs are in German and all the products sold are Austrian. It’s so bizarre after all the crazily controlled border crossings we’ve done on this trip, that we can now just cross from country to country, willy nilly and as we please, almost without even noticing.

We quickly crossed back into Slovakia for a few minutes before making it to the Hungarian border. Soon after the border we stopped in an abandoned petrol station to eat the lunch we’d bought at the supermarket, before driving straight to Budapest and successfully collecting our things from Tom Unkles’ cousin.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Day 281 – You don’t always get what you pay for.

Being a stone’s throw away from Budapest where we were having Christmas, Prague seemed like a good place to spend New Year, even though it made our route even more roundabout as we were then going to back track all the way to Romania, Moldova, Transdniestria and Ukraine afterwards. After winging it for months, never really making plans more than one or two destinations at a time, usually not more than a couple of days in advance, we now suddenly needed to be booking accommodation and locking in dates. Not surprisingly accommodation in Prague over this period isn’t exactly cheap and the best we found was 35 per person for a dorm room, but pretty centrally located and most importantly with a secure car park at the back of the property. This is by far the most we’ve spent on accommodation during this trip, the only other contenders being AU$27 pp at hostels in Darwin, Australia, and the “hotel” we found in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (Blog Day 184 – A City of White and Gold: The Dictator’s Dream) which cost US$55 per double. But that’s the price one has to pay to spend the biggest holiday in the year in one of Europe’s favourite capitals.

We found the hostel easily enough, climbed the three flights of stairs in the traditional high-ceilinged building, and were greeted by a brightly blond young woman in diamante-encrusted black leggings and glittery high heels. Apparently she had to wait for her colleague before she could so much as greet us, so we used the toilet and waited patiently in the foyer. A man whose belly poked out of his button-up checkered shirt arrived a while later and showed us to the secure parking in the grounds of the building. We carted all of the things that we wanted for the next five days up the million stairs and plonked ourselves back in the lobby to wait to be shown our room. We, along with a few other backpackers who had arrived in the meantime, were apparently waiting for our rooms to be ready – not ideal, but not exactly a huge problem, so we kept waiting. Gradually the other tourists dispersed until it was just us in the foyer and Diamante Leggings and Belly Shirt busy on their computers in the adjoining glass-walled office. Having made what we thought to be a reasonable assumption that we would be informed when our room was ready, but have since realised was a stupid one, we waited for about an hour and a half until it was just getting too ridiculous. In the office we went and addressed Belly Shirt, “So are our rooms nearly ready? We’ve been waiting an awfully long time.” He fiddled with some paper before looking up and explaining that they were over-booked and we would have to move. Apparently something about some drunk people breaking beds a couple of days ago. “Sure, we don’t mind moving, but come on, we parked the car, brought all our stuff up, waited for an hour and a half, and you waited to tell us this until we asked you what was going on? Will there be secure parking at the other place? Is it more out of town? Come on.”

Eventually Belly Shirt agreed that although the new place didn’t have secure parking, they would pay for it at a nearby lot, and although it was further out of town it was actually an upgrade to a hotel instead of a hostel (we since found out that “hotel” was a slight stretch). After some very frustrating negotiations which made us wish we were smashing our heads against brick walls rather than participating in this, we packed the car back up and moved to our new accommodation where we were assured that our new rooms would be waiting for us. We waited while the curly-haired receptionist saw to the confused English guys who were trying to decipher to exchange rate, and eventually were greeted. Apparently this hotel hadn’t been informed of our situation at all and we were shown rooms and quoted prices as if we were walk-in guests. Already exhausted by this fiasco we explained as reasonably as possible, but of course quite passionately, the extent of our situation by now and made it clear that enough was enough, we would have the two rooms which we could comfortably fit into at the original price of our booking. Curly Hair was quite upset and confused and immediately got on the phone to try and sort us out.

While we were once again waiting in the lobby, on stand-by as she spoke to someone (we don’t know who of course) on the phone, Sven walked in the door escorted by Belly Shirt. (Before leaving the first place we’d made him promise that when our friend arrived he would escort him by car to the new place.) Immediately we jumped up and started berating Belly Shirt about not passing on any message about moving our accommodation and how it was now three or something hours after we’d arrived. About a minute and a half into our spiel though we realised that it wasn’t actually Belly Shirt, but just another similar looking man also with a tight fitting shirt on. Realising his bafflement, we apologised, now assuming he was an innocent courier confused by our attacks, and then we discovered that he was actually the manager of this place and was the phantom man on the other end of Curly Hair’s phone call.

Seeing as not a single part of our situation had been passed onto poor bewildered Curly Hair, we tried to explain to New Belly Shirt what had already happened and what Original Belly Shirt had promised, such as the free secure parking and hotel rooms at the same price as our original booking. New Belly Shirt dealt with us very poorly, accusing us of lying and demanding that we prove what we were saying. Flabbergasted at the service we were receiving we were just about ready to give up and move elsewhere, when suddenly New Belly Shirt somehow had a change of mentality and decided to give Original Belly Shirt a phone call. We thought Original Belly Shirt would probably deny the promises he’s made, but thankfully New Belly Shirt got off the phone and agreed to our demands.

Immediately he began sucking up to us, showing a new-found interest in our travels, and very kindly organising the parking and taking care of everything. Oddly enough we ended up becoming good friends with Curly Hair and her boyfriend, the other receptionist, both Greek ex-pats, and were quite sad to farewell them when we eventually left. New Belly Shirt was ever-so friendly to us every time we bumped into each other, and even invited us out on New Year’s Eve and gave us a bottle of champagne as a gift. Still though, we never actually received an apology. Ah, how service standards have gone downhill.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Day 285 – Barbies and Bones. (Czech Republic)

After a bit of a hoo-ha with our accommodation on arrival we ended up having quite a good few days in Prague. We met a young Dutch fellow by the name of Sven in Belgrade, and as we had a spare bed in our already-booked accommodation in Prague, when we found out that he was planning to have New Year’s in Prague but didn’t have any accommodation sorted, we invited him to join our plans. Peculiarly though one night while we were in Budapest (over Christmas, between meeting Sven in Belgrade and seeing him again in Prague) we were sitting in a bar when we suddenly saw his face pressing up on the other side of the window! I guess it’s not as unlikely as the time we bumped into the German girl from our hostel in Tashkent, at a Couch Surfer’s in Belgrade (Blog Day 271 – An awkward evening and a confusingwake-up call), but still – it’s a pretty small world. And now I think of it, if it hadn’t been for the disaster that was Alexander (Couch Surfer from Belgrade) we wouldn’t have met Sven who has since become a very good friend.

Even throughout the Balkans things were becoming a bit more pricey compared to the places we’ve been to on the majority of the trip, but Czech Republic was the first place we’d been to where everything really was European priced. And devastating it was. All the things that we have become used to easily affording – whether we decide to or not – were suddenly real considerations that needed to be made. Not only that, but the type of pricing: in most of the world there seems to be very little difference between prices of the same item sold in different locations. For example in Cambodia a can of coke was worth between 2,000 Rial and 2,500 Rial ($0.50-$0.60), regardless of whether that was from an ice chest at the side of the road, a supermarket in Phnom Penh or the convenience store at the beach resort. There was no longer any option of eating for less than $1, we couldn’t just buy a soft drink at a convenience store in the centre of town, and staying in accommodation for a few nights shredded our budget.

On the other hand though Prague really is a beautiful city – it’s not flocked by tourists at all times of year for nothing. We arrived the day before New Year’s Eve and the Christmas market in the central square was buzzing with an excited mass of gluhwein drinkers, wurst lovers and Christmas tree spectators. New Year’s Eve itself though was hectic. We decided to go on a New Europe Free Walking Tour that day (an activity I would recommend in any city where they run, ie. most European cities) and it was madness. There were so many tourists trying to go on the tour that they had to split us up into several groups and we were continuously stuck in people traffic as we moved around the city. Crossing Charles’ Bridge was neigh on impossible as millions of other tourists crammed themselves into any gap they could find.

Along with the Lennon Wall, the Castle, the Clock Tower, the old town and all the other usual things to see in Prague, we visited the very centrally located, but surprisingly unheard-of Toy Museum. As we were walking down the hill from the Castle back to the centre of town we passed a fairly non-descript sign pointing left to “Toy Museum” and decided to have a quick look. And we were very glad we did. With thousands of examples of toys from all over Europe, spanning well into history, there was enough to keep each of us entertained for hours: working mechanical tradesmen, porcelain dolls dressed in white lace, figures depicting grotesque war scenes, detailed dolls houses, talking teddies, animated medieval castles, dolls participating in all sorts of activities, and so much more filled the cabinets and tables of the museum. And on top of that a Barbie display happened to be in town and we got to see everything from Lady Gaga Barbie to C-section Barbie.

Another must-see for anyone visiting Prague is the Bone Chapel in Kutna Hora, about 80km East of Prague. The story goes that at some point in the 13th Century, some holy soil was sprinkled on the grounds of this chapel making it a greatly sought after place to bury loved ones. During years of war and disease the burial grounds became overcrowded and some remains were excavated and stored inside the church. It wasn’t until much later that the bones inside the church were arranged artistically and it has since become a very interesting tourist attraction. Huge piles of skulls and bones stand in the corners, strings of skulls and bones adorn the archways and walls and even a coat of arms is suspended impressively at one end of the chamber. The highlight of the Bone Church though is surely the impressive chandelier hanging from the centre of the ceiling, made entirely from bones and containing at least one of each type of human bone. A creepy, but very unique sight to witness.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Day 280 – A failed attempt at visiting the Eagle’s Nest. (Austria, Germany)

After Christmas in Budapest our plan was to head to Prague for New Year, stopping in Vienna on the way where we would spend Denner’s birthday. Having failed at obtaining Ukrainian visas in Budapest we were hoping that the embassy in Vienna may be able to help, but the whole saga of getting a Ukrainian visa will follow.

From Vienna we had intended to pass through Cesky Krumlov, a famous medieval town in the Southern part of Czech Republic, but at the last minute we decided to take a slightly wider detour and visit the Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgarden, Germany. Perched atop one of the jagged mountains surrounding Berchtesgarden, the Eagle’s Nest was Hitler’s summer residence and the location of many noteworthy agreements, meetings and signings. There are photos of Hitler with Ava Brown enjoying the sun on the decking and having meals together in the dining hall at the Eagle’s Nest.

The road up the side of the hill was extremely  steep, but of course now that we were in Germany roads weren’t a problem. We zigzagged up the slope and found ourselves at a toll booth and a boom gate. Of course – it’s closed in winter. Of course it’s closed in winter. Highly disappointed that we didn’t get the chance to see the huge marble fireplace inside the house and the gold-encrusted lift, luxuriously spacious for the sake of Hitler’s claustrophobia, we observed from a distance and enjoyed the snow-covered Bavarian hills anyway. It really does look incredible though, set right on top of a rugged rocky peak, completely open to the elements but with a perfect view of the mountains and valleys all around.

Being Saturday afternoon everything in town seemed to be closed (of course) and we had almost given up on finding somewhere to eat lunch when we stumbled across the much livelier town centre. A small Christmas market was still operating in the square surrounded by traditional Bavarian buildings. Keen to eat some true Bavarian food we found an amusingly stereo-typically Bavarian restaurant where we feasted on pork knuckle, sausages, bread dumplings and sauerkraut.

Our short, sweet, but frustrating visit to Bavaria was topped off with a night camping in the forest before heading to Prague the following day.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Day 277 – Bathing in Budapest. (Hungary)

We had finally made it to Budapest on our designated arrival date of December 23rd. For the past month or so we’d been in such a huge rush and unfortunately toured the Balkans very quickly for the sake of this deadline, but we wanted to have Christmas somewhere where we could make it special, and with Tom Unkles’ family in Budapest seemed like a fantastic option.

Budapest is a beautiful city and covered in snow and Christmas lights it really is like something out of a fairytale. On the evening that we arrived, Christmas markets were dotted around the city, selling their array of Christmas decorations, sweets, hot food and drinks, souvenirs, hats, jewellery, other bits and pieces and most importantly gluhwein (mulled wine). With steaming cups of delicious gluhwein in hand we meandered around the temporary wooden structures, taking in the quaintness of the very European style Christmas market.

I feel a general sense of bafflement, indignation and mild disdain towards the worldwide obsession with roasted chestnut stands which never seem to actually have any customers. (Who eats roasted chestnuts? I don’t think I’ve ever stopped at one of those roadside stands and purchased a roasted chestnut, and as far as I’m aware I don’t know anybody that has. Why are there so many if nobody ever buys them? Do people actually buy them? Who are these people?) But somehow the tail-coated, top-hatted slender man roasting chestnuts on an old-fashioned steel stove in front of the opera house in Budapest, even made me feel warm and festive.

For Hungarians Christmas Eve is the big day, which we were aware of, but hadn’t quite prepared for. Stupidly we assumed that while some things might be closed, a lot wouldn’t, and we found ourselves with nowhere to buy groceries, drinks or the frustratingly last-minute Christmas presents we had all inevitably left until now to think of. We’ve been through so many cheap countries where we could have bought myriads of cool stuff for really cheap, but of course we waited until everything was closed in the most expensive city we’ve visited on this trip (except Melbourne, Adelaide and Darwin). We have a fun present giving “tradition” that has developed over the trip whereby we take it in turns to intermittently give presents to each other. It started off with silly gifts such as Tunkles giving Ben a small jar of lobster paste in Darwin and Denner giving Tunkles a pink sunhat from Boracay in the Philippines, but in time has become a way in which we help each other to collect the souvenirs that we want but can’t justify buying for ourselves. Why hadn’t we just saved some of the recent gifts from this system for Christmas and avoided this unfortunate situation where no-one had presents for anyone else? Alas, we found what we could, paid the horrendous prices and actually ended up with a fairly good selection.

We had a lovely meal with some relatives of Tom Unkles on Christmas Eve night, and spent Christmas Day afternoon with some other relatives who took us ice-skating. We had intended to cook ourselves a nice Christmas Day meal where we would each contribute something from our own family traditions, but of course every single supermarket in the city was closed so we ended up with Subway. Even McDonald’s was closed.

Most things were still closed on Boxing Day, but this was the day we had designated to going to the famous Széchenyi Baths. We caught the metro which makes evacuation noises and flashes intense light displays at every stop, and got out at the station named after the Baths. Making our way around the vast Roman building to the entrance where we discovered that despite the fact that according to the website it was open, even this was closed today. Disappointedly we circled the building anyway, observing the architecture itself, checking all the doors and gates just in case one was open, and feeling sorry for ourselves at having missed this delightful experience. At the far end though we heard some peculiar noises coming from some piping and wondered “could this be the sound of people, a lot of people, inside the Baths?” We continued on and the noises got louder until we had covered almost the entire perimeter of the building and came to another entrance, this one of which was definitely open and buzzing with bathers.

We paid our small fortune (3,550 Florins ($15.50) per person) and donned the allocated rubber bracelet which somehow magically knows exactly how much you’ve paid and which areas you’re allowed into. Avoiding the Thai massage spruikers reminded us of a previous time on this trip – the difference being that these Thai massages were priced at €50 per 30 minutes instead of the €1 or €2 per hour we became accustomed to in and around Thailand.

From the indoor entrance foyer and change rooms, we came to the courtyard in the centre of the building and found ourselves face to face with the magnificent open-air baths, adorned with a selection of Roman statues, some majestically looking over the bathing proceedings, some issuing water from various body parts. With the outside air temperature at around the 0°C mark, the 38°C water was steaming ferociously, hovering over the baths in a sort of heavenly cloud. We stored our towels in a corner and ran on tip-toes across the chilly brick floor to the edge of the water where we immersed ourselves in the warmth, relieved to be out of the cold. Despite the fact that the place was heaving with old men playing chess (yep – right there in the water), couples, families, groups of youngsters, tourists and locals, the thick fog of steam served as a mythical wall between each group of bathers. Over the noise of the ancient Roman water features you could hear a faint buzz of sound from everyone else, but surrounded by endless wisps of white it felt as if you were there all by yourself. And as you moved through the water there was the occasional couple acting as if they really were in a private room.

As we reached the end of our visit it began raining, which is an incredible sensation when submerged in hot, steamy water. It made us think about how remarkable the experience would be if it was snowing.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Day 273 – From Melbourne to the EU. (Border crossing Serbia to Hungary)

Border crossings had been becoming progressively easier for us since Central Asia, but as the entrance point to the EU we expected that the one between Serbia and Hungary might be a bit stricter and therefore more time consuming. On the other hand though we were fairly certain there wouldn’t be a jot of corruption, we just expected that they would want to search our car, make us buy insurance and complete a bunch of paperwork.

Leaving Serbia was a walk in the park; we drove up to the window and handed our passports to the lady behind the glass who was promptly joined by some colleagues who wanted to join in the curious task of checking foreign passports. I use the term “checking” with a stretch of the imagination; what they actually did was joyfully flick through all the pretty visas and get very excited when they got to one which they couldn’t decipher. The Laos visa was pointed out in one of the passports and we explained “between Thailand and China? Near Cambodia? Vietnam? In Asia? Just South of China?” but they really had no idea. One of the Pakistan visas was paused at and some eyebrows were raised, but only in the same slightly baffled “you guys are crazy” type of way. When they got to Nagorno Karabakh we decided to just tell them it was Armenia. (This is in no way a reflection on our stance on the subject, but not wanting to get into the details of the situation right then, this was just a way in which to make things simple for the point of crossing a border.) Some amused glances were exchanged between them, and between them and us, and then they got down to business and started inspecting the title pages of our passports.

“Thomas?” We strained to see which Thomas they were looking for and discovered it was Unkles. Tom Unkles waved and sat still while they inspected his face against his photo.

“Binyamin?” Ben leaned forwards to claim the name and waited for their satisfaction that he was in fact the Binyamin from the photo.

“Eelindy?” Process of elimination points to this being a rendition of my name, so I made eye contact and smiled awkwardly for the cursory glances.

“Thomas?” And then a wave of realisation crossed their faces as the fact that we have two Thomases sinked in. And then they kept reading and discover that this Thomas has four names! Four names! Well this was enough to send them into hysterics for the next few minutes, which of course we in turn found pretty amusing so joined in laughing at them laughing at us. Sighing and wiping the drops of laughter leaking from their tear ducts, they handed our passports back and waved us on, still chuckling to themselves.

The funny thing about this (well maybe not the funny thing, but certainly a funny thing) is that I also have four names and they didn’t even blink twice at that.

The Hungarian side of the border was a grand and professional looking complex patrolled by EU police and customs and immigration officials, not by Hungary itself. It was a bit confusing with lots of lanes and traffic cones and divided queues and we accidentally ended up in the area designated to buses. We were pleasantly but firmly directed to a different queue which involved reversing to do a u-turn around a bin and then moving some traffic cones so we could fit through a barricade and get into the lane which would take us to the right window. There we waited while the polite and well-dressed EU guards took our passports and car registration, glanced inside the car and made menial small talk with us. Shortly later our documents were returned and we were welcomed to the EU, the entire border taking us less than half an hour to cross.

It took almost 9 months, but after about 46,500 kilometres, we had finally driven all the way from Melbourne to the EU. There are many milestones along this trip, but this is certainly one of them.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Day 271 – An awkward evening and a confusing wake-up call. (Serbia)

We have now used Couch Surfing quite a few times on this trip, and so far our experiences have been nothing but glowing. When choosing to meet with someone and dedicate our time in a city to being with a host whom we have never met before, it is of course a risk, but it has always been completely worth it and we have met some truly fantastic people through Couch Surfing. Every now and then though, statistically I guess you’re bound to stumble across a dud, and this is the tale of ours...

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the layout of Couch Surfing, you can either search for hosts or guests. So we enter our planned destinations in “travel plans” and then search for hosts in those places. However in the mean time sometimes people in those places search for guests and if they see our open request and they like the sound of us, they can send us a message offering us their hospitality. And for Belgrade this is what happened to us: we were sent a very exuberant request to stay with a fellow by the name of Alexander.

The plans were put in place and when it came time to meet him we made our way to his house and parked outside the door to his very centrally located apartment block. As planned we pressed the buzzer that coincided with his name and when there was no answer, sent him an sms to say we were waiting outside. We waited a while but the door wasn’t opened for us. He rang us on the mobile phone, but having already explained to him that phone calls weren’t an option because we were using an overseas sim card and it would cost a million dollars for both parties, we sent him another sms to explain this yet again. While we were milling around on his doorstep someone else entered the building, so we followed behind and with no idea which floor to go to began walking up the stairs. The numbers weren’t clear and his name wasn’t on any door so we tried sending him another sms. Again he called, and again we smsed. Warning bells started ringing, but we persisted.

Eventually we received an sms with directions as to which door to knock on and we found that the guy in the orange jacket who we’d exchanged niceties with as we passed each other on the stairs was our host’s friend, but hadn’t thought that maybe these four lost looking foreigners were the ones looking for the apartment he was on his way to. Anyway we were let in, offered a cup of tea and introduced to Alexander and his orange jacketed friend. On the couch sat a very familiar looking girl, who also seemed to recognise us, and after a few moments of that awkward “I’m sure I know you from somewhere but I have not a clue where, and I can see you recognise me too but also have no idea from where, and now we’ve exchanged this look for too long to just pretend that we don’t know each other” we realised that we had stayed at the same hostel in Tashkent, Uzbekistan many months ago. She had been looking to get a Turkmen visa and had asked us about our experience at the embassy in Tashkent. We’d given her all the advice we could, but really we had a very easy time and told her so. We’d then left Tashkent with our Turkmen visas and she’d gone off to the Turkmen Embassy, and as it turns out she’d had a much harder time. What a small world that after meeting at a hostel in Tashkent, we would then bump into each other at a Couch Surfer’s in Belgrade, Serbia! This was in fact the last night of her travels and she left shortly after we arrived to catch a train back to her home in Germany. Perhaps her speedy exit should have been then next warning sign, but again we dismissed it.

We found a secure car parking space – not an easy feat in Belgrade as it turns out as they’re all by the hour and mostly with a low clearance – and headed out to a spot that Alexander had lined up where we would get really good local food for cheap prices. We met up with another Couch Surfer, an Italian man who was staying in a hostel and was just meeting Alexander for the evening, and caught a bus right to the edge of town. After walking along the river front for a while we came to a casino entrance; the usual wide drive-way, flashy foyer and waistcoated butlers. This wasn’t exactly what we’d been expecting. We were asked for our passports which of course we didn’t have as we don’t usually carry them around town with us and hadn’t been instructed that we’d need them, but apparently we couldn’t enter without them. Alexander seemed to be going on without us though, so we wondered if we were just going to be waiting out the front while he did his own thing inside the casino. After a bit of to and fro we discovered that they would allow us into the restaurant, but not the casino. Well that’s fine – we were only there to eat anyway.

A shiny steel lift (a far cry from the wood venire Soviet affairs we’ve become accustomed to) took us to the trendy casino restaurant where we were seated in state of the art stools and handed minimalist menus. We really weren’t quite sure what was going on as this was far from the cheap meal of local food we had been promised and the Italian guy was clearly quite uncomfortable. We all ordered the cheapest item on the menu, skipped drinks and struggled to make conversation. Alexander wasn’t interested and the Italian guy was growing visibly more irate as the minutes passed. During out attempts at tense conversation he cut us off, and quite emotionally directed his frustration at Alexander, asking him why he would invite him to this place. “You’ve read my profile, yes? What made you think I would want to come here? I don’t mind the money, but I don’t want to be giving it to a big company of casinos. You sent me the request, not I to you, why did you do this if you were going to bring me here?” With no attempt at any sort of response or defence, Alexander ignored his guests and in tense silence we strenuously continued our unsatisfying and overpriced meals.

In an endeavour to save the evening, at least for ourselves if not for the Italian guy, we responded to Alexander’s question of what we should do after dinner with a suggestion of heading back into town and getting a drink somewhere. Maybe he was just having a bad day; maybe something was going on that we didn’t know about; all we could do was make an effort to rectify this disastrous evening. On the walk back to the bus, the bus ride itself and then the walk from the bus stop at the other end, we chatted with the Italian guy and discovered that actually we got on pretty well with him; it was just ever so unfortunate the way in which we had met.

Alexander stopped at a small fruit and veg market on the way home and when we asked him if he was buying something he responded with “I thought you guys said you wanted to buy some fruit”. “No, we said we wanted to get a drink somewhere and sit down for a chat.” Next thing we knew we were at his front door, and when we said “So, we’re not going to go to a bar or anything?” he directed us to a convenience store around the corner where he thought they might sell beer. Not exactly the point of the exercise. He went straight upstairs while we bade farewell to our new Italian friend and had a quick discussion as to whether to stay with this guy or just move to a hostel in the morning. As we knew he had no plans the following day we decided not to make any decisions right then, but sleep on it and see what happened in the morning. Maybe we were completely over-reacting, maybe in the morning it would be all fine. When we knocked on his door five minutes after he left us outside though, and he opened the door and retreated suddenly without even so much as a moment of eye-contact, we realised we would probably be leaving the following morning.

As it happened though this wasn’t our decision to make. At about 7am he began ringing us again on the phone that he knows we can’t receive calls on. Again we sent an sms asking how we could help him, confused because we knew there was no reason for him not to be in the adjoining bedroom. Ten minutes after the phone calls a knock came on the door and when we called out “come in” expecting Alexander, we were shocked to find someone we had never met before.

He seemed to be asking us to leave, but quite inconclusively, and unable to get a clear picture of what exactly was going on, it didn’t get easier when he just left the room. After another ten minutes or so we realised he wasn’t coming back so I decided to go and try and find out what the story was. So I knocked on the door that I supposed to be this bloke’s room and asked what was going on. Apparently Alexander had told this guy (his roommate who we didn’t know existed) that he was going on a business trip (which we knew didn’t exist as he has no business and specifically had no plans that day) and that we should leave. He tried to call Alexander while I was standing there, but of course now he wouldn’t answer his phone. The most frustrating thing being that we were fairly certain he was just in his bedroom next door.

In the end I gathered that Alexander regularly invites Couch Surfers to stay in the tiny flat (two small bedrooms, a kitchenette in the hallway, a bathroom/laundry and a living room big enough literally for four people to lie on the floor side by side) that they share with no regard whatsoever for his poor roommate. On top of this it is apparently quite a common occurrence for Alexander to demand his Couch Surfers vacate earlier than planned, using his housemate as the middle man. So our new friend, whilst bonding over our bafflement of Alexander’s ways, had to wait for us to pack up all of our bedding and belongings several hours earlier than we had planned to wake up, before he could get on with his own plans for the day.

Needless to say we found ourselves a hostel that morning, which happened to be where our Italian friend was also staying. Usually Couch Surfing brings opportunities to explore the city and meet people that you’d never otherwise be able to, but in this case the hostel provided us with all of that and Couch Surfing provided us with nothing more than an awkward evening, a confusing wake-up call and our first negative Couch Surfing story.