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Awards for Best Hostels

As a reference for future travelers and as a small way for me to thank the following hostels for their hospitality, I am listing the best hostels I stayed at this trip, broken down into the categories listed on Hostelworld.com

Character: City BackPackers in Stockholm, Sweden. This hostel has a Swedish sauna, court yard to hang out, coffee shop combo out front, full kitchen w/ free pasta, full decked out lounge with four iMac’s and strong wireless connection everywhere in the building. All the rooms are named after each island/district in Stockholm. Plus you gotta take your shoes off when you enter, just like you would in a typical Swedish home.

Honorable mention – Bilbao Akelarre Hostel in Bilbao, Spain. Fun and funky art decorated by local art students.

Security: Hip Karma Hostel in Barcelona, Spain. Although I didn’t like this hostel as a whole, you gotta hand it to them on the security. You get a locker right underneath your bed, with a power cord in there for you to charge all your electronics without worrying leaving them exposed compared to leaving them out in the lobby where anybody walk by could snatch them. Also you get curtains around your bed to block out the morning sun if you’d like to sleep in or surf the web in your bed.

Honorable mention – Sleep in Heaven in Copenhagen, Denmark. Electronic access card for your room and locker. Don’t even have to worry about carrying a keypad or combination lock with you anymore.

Location: David Inn in Florence, Italy. Just a short walk from the train station, right by the Duomo and Accademia.

Honorable mention – City BackPackers is really close to the train station as well. It didn’t win this category because it’s not as convenient to get to the sights like Gamla Stan or Djurgarden. Way Hostel in Madrid is pretty good too as it’s close to all the bars and Plaza Mayor and Pueta del Sol with a metro stop right at the corner, but the train stations are a bit out of the way. You’d have to walk a fair distance, uphill, from Atocha and Chamartin is a long metro ride.

Staff: Hanoi Hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam. The owners work right there themselves. They set up all my tours to Sapa and Halong Bay, laundry service, breakfast in the morning, happy hour in the afternoon and all the recommendations on where to go and eat in Hanoi.

Honorable mention – Ciao Bella Hostel in Milan, Italy. Silvana and the gang were so friendly and helpful they made me totally feel at home. Also Surfbackpackers in Bilbao, Spain. Fede and Rafa are just getting started when I stayed there. They also stay there so they attend to your every need. They even took us all out to get some pintxos at night.

Worst – I don’t like to be negative, but Hostel Cinque Terre deserves to be noted. This was a Lonely Planet recommendation and quite honestly Lonely Planet has let me down many times before as well. They don’t participate in any of the hostel listing sites looks like. You are required to send in reservations at least a week in advance. Lights out at midnight. You get a coin for the shower a day that runs for just 5 minutes. You’re not allowed to check in between 1-4pm. In fact, you are not even allowed to be in the hostel between that time as well. It feels more like a prison than a hostel. When I got there at 3pm the owner literally shooed me away like a stray cat. The kitchen was understaffed and you have to wait forever for them to take your order when they feel like it. They’re also not shy to tell you that they’re busy and you impatient American just need to wait… well, there’s patience and there’s waiting 20 minutes to just order some store-bought frozen gnocchi, and another 20 for it to get to my table.

Fun: Way Hostel in Madrid, Spain. Way is a huge hostel but all the different walking tours, tapas tours, and pub crawls really help facilitate meeting fellow travelers.

Honorable mention – The Siem Reap Hostel in Siem Reap, Cambodia. How many hostels do you know has its own pool? Pool table, bar, TV lounges.

Cleanliness: Hostel Cinque Terre, in Manarola, Italy. Yeah, I know I just bagged them but again, you gotta give credit where credit’s due. It is really clean. With the place operated like a prison and most people not even around most of the time to make a mess, of course it’s clean…

Iceland Iceland, Baby!

The fact I am in the place of the FIRST episode of No Reservations as my LAST stop is extremely fitting. After all this time I spent around the world, at times duplicating Bourdain’s experience as a foolish wish that maybe in the process I can become a carbon copy of him, I now had come full circle to where it all started. I know, I know… the first episode was technically Paris but he’s been to France for so many episodes… (Normandy, Provence, etc) I consider that more as a prologue, or the pilot episode. Plus it totally ruins the sentiment of this post.

The fact is I have been wanting to come to Iceland for a while now. Ever since an Icelandic friend of mine told me about the place and Bourdain’s show I wanted to see the puffins and squeeze them so hard until their heads pop off. I wanted to wash down hakarl with Brennivin and see exactly how bad it is. Spoiler: it’s as bad as every account you’ve heard. It didn’t happen last summer b/c of the volcano plus the busy work and GMAT prep schedule. It almost didn’t happen this yr again b/c of the volcano.

As the plane approach Keflavik I had just woken up from my nap. Something about the smell of recycled air just puts me right out. I could’ve sworn we were landing on an asteroid or the set of Armageddon. Mostly also b/c I had mixed up Keflavik w/ the domestic terminal which is right by the city. All the typical infrasctures I thought I was going to see during the descent was replace by volcanic rocks.

I arrived on Iceland’s Independence Day. Originally I was suppose to get in around 4pm but my flight was delayed. By the time I got into the city and settled in it was close to 8 or 9pm and many of the activities were winding down. Of course w/ the constant sun and daylight in the summer you’d think it’s still 2pm. The first thing I did was to put on my Marmot insulation vest. I had carried this thing around the world and god dammit I was ready to wear it even in the shower to make sure I fully utilize it.

Luckily, I had picked out a bed in the corner of the hostel, farthest away from the door and any lockers so I could be as far away from any disturbance as possible. Or so I thought. Around 3 or 4am the sun started blasting in through a crack in the curtains. I freaked out, thinking that I had overslept for my horseback riding tour. There I was fumbling through my pants w/out my glasses trying to find my iPod, trying to remember if the time on it was Austin or Copenhagen time and either plus 5 or minus 2 from that because my watch’s battery had died literally right before I boarded the plane from Kastrup.

Blue Lagoon, Golden Circle, Black Death (Brennivin)… Yeah yeah yeah, that’s all cool and you must try them when you come to Iceland. What I really wanted to talk about as I alluded to earlier is hakarl. It is putrified shark. I stop by the Sea Baron after my whale and puffin watching tour. Normally what appears to be a pretty touristy establishment, but on this particular day I think the owner was entertaining a big group of his friends. I strike up a conversation w/ the people next to me at the table. Turns out they were Icelandic and showing their Danish friend around. Different topics regarding Iceland and Denmark come up of course, among them, hakarl.

My new Icelandic friend ask the owner where I can get some small tasting portions, Costco toothpick style. Funny enough the owner was getting ready to serve some up to his friends. He gets a brand new one just out of the freezer, along w/ a knife that looks more like a hatchet and a hammer. After the hacking sound stops outside I pop out to take a peek and he offer me and the Dane a piece. It really isn’t that bad at first since it was colder than how it’s normally served. After the suggestion to chew harder, the ammonia taste really come out in full force. It is like having a public toilet in your mouth. The same lingering smell from where some a drunk teenager had urinated the night before that you’d encounter ever so frequently in France except it now permeates from inside your mouth up to your nose and down your throat. I’ve never tried urinal cakes before either, but I’d imagine the taste is comparable.

I could see how drinking Brennivin could help though. Literally translated as “burning wine” and so called “Black Death”, this stuff might be the only thing that’s strong enough to wash, no… burn away the taste of ammonia. It’s not as bad as my Icelandic friend built it up to be, although it does have a bit of chemical-y, herbal spice note that’s probably from the caraway.

I can’t believe we can officially start the count down for my return home. Of course, now that the end is near, it’s on my mind quite more often than before. At more or less 80 days right now, I am getting a little tired.

Of course, it could just be the sun playing tricks on me.

Looking at my bank account is also not very motivating.

I knew in the Nordic region there’s almost constant daylight in the summer before coming here, but it’s just not the same when you experience it for yourself. It’s quite freaky… In Stockholm, it STARTS getting dark more or less around 10pm and you’ll still have daylight until about 11pm. Around 3am or so the sun will start to come up. Your physiological response is to be awake but your brain is just flat out not responding at times.

It also makes taking photos more interesting. The golden hour for me technically would be like 4 or 5am and around 9pm. Let’s face it, there’s just no way I am getting up at 4am to take some photos.

Originally I had plans to go to Oslo and Bergen but I am so tired of figuring out the logistics for the train, ferries, and hostels I just decided to go to Lund, Sweden to stay w/ some friends I made earlier in the trip and hang out in Copenhagen before my flight to Iceland.

I am in the Nordic region for the remaining 2 weeks or so of my trip. Starting out in Copenhagen, I am then heading to Stockholm for a few days. Originally I was gonna go to Oslo and Bergen instead of Stockholm, but the ferries and hostels are all pretty booked up this coming weekend, leaving me w/ just the priciest options that are out of my budget. I have also heard of how expensive Norway is. I had a sticker shock coming from Asia to Europe and I had another one once I arrived in Denmark. If Oslo is Europe’s most expensive city I think I’d lose my mind if I go there.

I have come to use the price of a .5L Coke as my pricing index. Yes, I know there is the Big Mac index but I don’t even want to set foot inside a McDonald’s (or McCafe… Ooh la la!). Coke is more readily available. I have not been able to find one less than 15 Kroners or about $3. In mainland Europe I usually can find one btwn 0.80 to 1.50€, or let’s just say $2. I wonder if any one has researched the inverse relationship between avg temperature and cost of living.

People might be more familiar w/ the term “Flying Dutman” referring to the Dutch zipping around on bikes in Amsterdam, but nobody has told me about the “Flying Great Danes.” In Copenhagen lots of people commute by bike as well. Not that I wasn’t expecting any; it was just a lot more than I expected since I largely thought that was just a Dutch thing. What’s also interesting to me is, although varies by neighborhoods and locations, the bikes are largely unlocked, a clear indication for the crime level here.

Many European cities have these bike rental systems set up where you can pick up a bike at one location and drop off at another. You can also find these in Denver and D.C. in the US. Copenhagen’s system quite simple: you insert a 20 Kroner coin into a slot on the bike and the lock comes off. When you return the bike to another rack and put the lock back on, you get your coin back. It’s free, no time limit. Some cities in Europe I know you need to get a membership card first (like Valencia), some you can just put in your credit card and you’ll be charged a small amount but if you don’t return it w/in 30 minutes then the fee becomes larger.

I tried it out. It’s fun. There are quite a few caveat emptors though.

1) You might not find the bike racks
There are signs for these racks through out the city and they’re also labeled on tourist maps. I’ll totally admit it’s very possible that I am retarded (sorry, mentally challenged) or blind (visually challenged) but sometimes when I get to where the rack is suppose to be and there just isn’t one.

2) You might not find a bike
Even if you do track down the bike rack, quite often for me at least, there isn’t a single damn bike there.

3) The only bikes left are defected
If you do happen to locate a bike rack, see an object that do resemble the shape of a bike from a distance, don’t get too excited just yet: there’s probably something wrong w/ it. Broken chain, peddle, or even the mechanism to put in the coin could be screwed up somehow. It’s like when you go out drinking, at some point you realize all the cute girls have left.

4) There is no handbrakes on these bikes
Oh, there’s brakes… Don’t worry. They are just not the traditional kind, which is awesome b/c you eliminate the brake cables. What you do is you back peddle on the bike and that triggers the brakes. Which could’ve been useful information to me b/c I started out braking w/ my fucking shoes. I have this habit of back peddling when I bike if I am just cruising, which is how I found out about the brake thing. The first time I did this I came to a sudden stop. It’s one thing to almost fall off the damn bike, again, like a retard, it’s another issue to cause a bicycle pile-up behind you.

5) Even the good bikes are still pieces of shit
The tires are terrible on these cheap bikes, the bikes don’t handle very well, and you could peddle until you puke lactic acid and you’d still be the slowest bike on the street. I’d like to see Lance or Alberto Cantador try to win a time trial on one of these.

6) You don’t know or forget to use the hand signal
In a conversation w/ a staff, she told me they actually have to go to bike schools. Signaling turning is pretty simple but I sometimes forget I am suppose to signal stop as well. See #4 regarding bike pile-up’s. It’s a good thing the Danes are polite otherwise I am sure they’d all give me the finger as they pass by.

All in all, it’s still cool. I wish more cities in the US were built or suitable for biking (suck it LA!). You can always just rent a bike from a normal shop, but those cost like 10 Cokes. Oh and another thing about biking which makes total sense w/ what I know about Dutch girls is that they tone your legs. So although I might be that attracted to Danish girls, as a legs man I am quite happy about the abundance of bikes here.

It’s been almost 2 months since I last got a haircut on the road (I usually go about once a month). I thought about toughing it out and just wear a hat all the time. Believe it or not, what changed my decision was b/c I was going through my shampoo/body wash too quickly.

Haircut, pretty standard task back at home. It’s something you can easily take care of even during a lunch break. But when you are abroad, not only do you have the time constraint you run the risk of getting a result completely not what you intended. Yeah, the barber knows you want it shorter, that’s why you’re in his shop, but how much shorter? How do you like your bangs? Leave the sideburns on?

My hair got so ridiculous I decided it didn’t matter anymore. I just need to mow down the wild pasture on my dome. Even if I came out bald that would’ve been preferable.

I knew that most businesses close on Sundays in Europe. The first time I was in Milan, I had saved some time on a Monday for laundry and other housekeeping tasks before heading to Florence. There is a street near my hostel normally would have about 10 to 12 shops within about 3 blocks. Literally did I know that the hairdressers take Mondays off as well. Most of the shops have “Lunedi Chiuso” on their doors, but they’re in Italian. It might as well had said “Free Puppies” and it still would not have drawn my attention.

I then came to the conclusion that “oh, well if they close on Mondays that must mean they stay open on Sundays instead” (stupid, right?). Which means I am faced with the exact same situation the first time around in Milan.

I did manage to find one shop that was open but it looked really fancy and they didn’t post their prices. Luckily I found another shop operated by some Asians. I tried communicate with them first in English but it was pretty clear they didn’t know any. I then asked if they speak Mandarin, in Mandarin and thank goodness they do! Quite possibly the best 8 Euros I spent on this trip.

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You can always count on the Asians and the Middle Easterners for some of the most basic needs on the road in Europe. For some reason this clip from Fight Club would play in my head while I was sitting in the chair getting my haircut. “We take care of your basic needs. We do your dry cleaning. We serve your doner kebabs. We cut your hair. Do not fuck with us.”

When you visit a place, it often extracts some emotion out of you, starting from your initial reaction. For example, in Milan, the moment you get out of the metro stop the majestic Duomo is right in your face (along w/ the peddlers). In Barcelona when I went into the Sagrada Familia I literally forgot to breathe. It’s like seeing a naked girl for the first time when you are 7 yrs old. You are not sure if it’s polite to stare, but you can’t take your eyes off of it.

Well, I went to Pisa today. I knew I probably won’t like it, I just want to see the damn thing for myself since I was so close in Firenze. As I approach the Leaning Tower, it is cool. You can see it above the other roofs and the stupid thing really is crooked. Then I got up and close w/ the flock of tourists, doing all these goofy poses pretend to prop up the tower.

It got real old. Real quick.

It’s even worse than that Katy Perry song on the radio. The first time you heard it you thought: “hey, this is pretty catchy.” God forbid you might even bop your head to it a bit. Soon enough every station was playing it and when you hear the song it triggers your gag reflex, or your desire to find a gun and blow your brains out. Certainly the brief moment where you can still see your brain fragments painting the wall next to you before you are dead is more enjoyable than that.

Illogical or not, I can’t help but think… what if people doing these poses is actually what’s causing the tower to lean over? Everytime that shutter clicks it tilts another micro-nano-meter.

Hey, I get it. It’s fun. I know many friends have taken this picture. It’s just not my bag. Does the world really need another pic like this? Certainly this is not what travel is about… some goofy pictures. Hey, I know I am weird. You don’t have tell me and I wouldn’t make you talk to the hand, b/c my shaking disapproval frown says it all.

Secrely (well, not so secretly anymore), I wished the damn thing would just fall over already. I mean, it’s there b/c of poor construction or some corrput guy was skimming off the top when it was built. If it was a tree I’d go into town and buy the first axe I see and chop it down. I just hate all this cute, kawaii business people do. I wanted to break off the index and middle fingers of every Asian girls that ever did the stupid V pose in a picture. I wanted to punch Hello Kitty in the face.

I left Pisa and got on the next train to Lucca angrily. I didn’t want to be angry but I was. I knew this about myself I just never imagined myself to be this upset to the point where I’d write a post about this. Luckily I found a great little shop w/ the sweetest lady in a small street on my way back to the train station and that cheered me up a bit.

Let’s talk geek for a minute. More importantly, how EVERY single piece of tech gear I brought w/ me is somewhat defected but not completely broken by this point. If you know how to fix any of the following problems, please do let me know.

I promise I do write more positive posts. It’s just that I want to include pictures w/ them and I need to post-process them on a proper computer after I get back. They’re coming.

Computer:
I had made up my mind long ago that I wasn’t going to bother w/ any kind of laptops, but then the iPad 2 came out… got it, love it, its small size is perfect for traveling. Don’t love how the smart cover still leaves the back exposed and occasionally would come off b/c it’s only magnetic.

Problem – The aforementioned magnetic hold can be somewhat weak. I grabbed the iPad at a wrong spot while I was in Vietnam and the thing came off… resulting in a crack diagonally across my screen.

Camera:
Nikon D700, with 18-200mm lens. I inherited this after my dad decided it was too heavy for his taste. He had a D80 before, but I ended up playing w/ it most of the time and took way better pictures than he does so he bought the D700. When it got here, he played around w/ it and basically said: “do you want it? It’s too heavy. I don’t want to carry it.”

I debated for the longest time whether I should carry a point-n-shoot or a DSLR. I figured I might not be able to get some of these images from the places I will go so I decided a DSLR was worth its weight.

Problem – After I got to Spain the stupid lens wouldn’t auto-focus any more. I tried some easy fixes like cleaning the lens, etc but I think it’s something inside, either the mirror or sensor is affected. Right before this happened there was a bad rain storm in Singapore. My bag got a little wet but the camera was fine, just a little condensation built up and that could easily affected the inside as well, which is something I shouldn’t mess w/ myself, especially on the road.

Music:
Yes, I do carry an extra iPod Touch w/ me. I have so much music my phone is not able to store it (plus the battery life sucks) and I’m not gonna carry the iPad in my pocket.

Problem – Somehow while I was downloading new podcasts over iTunes, all of my music is gone. It might be moved to a hidden file folder judging by some of the forums I read, but I need proper connection to a computer to fix that I think. No more The National, no more Regina Spektor, no more Radiohead.

(Oh, I should add even my headphones isn’t spared. The right earbud has no sound coming out of it anymore)

Phone:
I got a T-Mobile G2 for the faster speed connection b/c I couldn’t stand the Edge speed on my jailbreak iPhone 3GS anymore (C’mon T-Mobile! Merge w/ AT&T!). Pretty cool, good camera, Android system, but did I mention the battery life sucks?

Problem – the top half of my screen stopped working… but if I slide out the screen and use the horizontal orientation it does, but then some of the other buttons wouldn’t work. Make it very awkward even if I am just trying to set an alarm.