Sunday, December 29, 2013

Panama City - Day Trip 2013


My original plan was to travel to Costa Rica from Nicaragua by bus but I was advised by a number of people in the travel forums about the travel delays at the border due to the holiday travel.  When I was looking into booking the airline tickets, I came across the United Airlines Mileage tickets within Central America do not cost much and on top of it, the flight schedules allow us to have 10 hour day time stop over in Panama City.

Arriving @ Panama City

The Panama City airport is such a modern airport with a lot of restaurants and the getting through the immigration/custom was quick and easy even with finger
printing/photographing.  We arrived without any plan for the day, hoping to see the city, see the larger ships crossing the canal and whatever the local tour guide advises.  Luckily, there's not much bargaining for the taxis at the airport and we were able to hire an English speaking driver, Jose, for $80 for four hours with the plan of visiting Miraflores locks first and use the rest of the time for other activities.

Timing is Everything

When we arrived at the Miraflores Locks @1130am and we were told that there's no ship traffic for the next two hours so instead of watching movie and visiting the museum at the locks, we decided to take a ride to see other parts of the city.  Jose's English was very good and not every one of the taxi driver could speak good English so when you hire a taxi make sure that the driver could speak the language that you could understand ;-)

Jose took us to the Casco Viejo first, it is a nice place with old Spanish style buildings and we just drove around before heading to the causeway drive from where the view of the downtown Panama city is very good.  C
auseway is a man made road (not a bridge) connecting three islands to the mainland - the rocks used to build this road were the rocks removed to build Miraflores Locks.

The roads in Panama City are as good as the roads in USA, so moving around between different parts of the city was not an issue.  The downtown of Panama City was beautiful with modern and very artistic buildings - I can say that the skyline looks better than the Seattle skyline.

When we arrived at the Miraflores @1pm, there was huge ship crossing the canal and I should say that we're lucky to arrive at that time because it takes forever for a ship cross the canal.  Getting the ship into the locks and moving the ship across the locks is done by set of cars on the tracks attached to the ships by cable.  It took more than 45 minutes for the ship to cross the canal through the locks and it is a very slow process.  Instead of waiting for another hour or so to see the next ship crossing, we spent the next 30 minutes in the museum looking at the tools that they used to build the canal, structure and operation details of the canal and other interesting facts.  So going through the museum may be a good time fill the gap between the crossings and after going through the museum, we left Miraflores to Casco Viejo.

People Watching in Casco Viejo

We made the arrangements with Jose to pick us up from Casco Viejo to take us to the airport @7pm.  We got the sticker shock after looking at the prices in the restaurant for lunch after spending relatively less money in Nicaragua, but the prices are not very expensive and less than the prices in USA.  While having lunch, met an elderly mom and her daughter from Philly who were spending a week in Panama.  The mom was complaining about how people are not friendly compared to people in Costa Rica and not speaking in English ;-)

We spent the next 4 hours walking around the town, people watching, enjoying the view of the Panama City and the sunset.  It is one of the happening place for the newly wed or going to be wed to take their photo sessions and young couples to just to hang around.  The architecture of the buildings and the churches are impressive and the government is trying to maintain the same look of the building going forward, but we could see a number of building that need maintenance badly.

Jose showed up on time to take us to the airport and we were in the airport in less than 30 minutes.  The security at the Panama City airport is much stricter than the security at the Managua airport but there were not many people in the airport so it's quick.


I don't think that there is not much to do in the Panama City for more than a day unless you are in to clubs and parties.  If we had more time, we would have spent the time in the downtown area.  We didn't interact with the locals much so don't know much about the local friendliness.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Nicaragua - 2013


Decided to travel to the central america during Christmas to enjoy the sunny weather and to practice my Spanish.  In a way, motivation for me to pick up Spanish in a faster phase ;-)  Wanted to cover more than one country for this two week trip and the combination of Nicaragua & Costa Rica fell in place.  One of the reasons for this choice is the opportunity to cross the border with less trouble by bus.


Island Ometepe: Volcano Conception and Maderas
There are a lot of very nice places in Nicaragua to visit and deciding where to go is a tough decision.  If I go to  El Salvador or Guatemala anytime, I may end up visiting the northern Nicaragua later. We stayed with the main cities (Granada & Leon) and Island Ometepe (wanted to visit here before they start building the canal and mess up the beauty of this place) this trip.  Despite Nicaragua being the second poorest country in the southern hemisphere, we felt safe wherever we were in Nicaragua - except in Managua and it was because of the opinions given out by a number of locals we met in our journey.  We were walking out and looking for a restaurant in Managua at 9pm but didn't face any threats and it's going to be as bad as walking around in LA or NY in the unknown areas at night.  Most of the time we used our common sense and didn't end up in any issues.

Improving Bus System in North West

Christmas in Portland
To save $200 per ticket for this trip, I booked our tickets from Portland, the overall savings because of this cheap-ass plan was $400 and it was worth it.  The new BOLT bus service in the North West is awesome, we used this bus to get to Portland downtown and the public transit system in Portland is very impressive, hoping that Seattle will learn a thing or two from Portland.  Getting from the bus stop to the airport was very easy in Portland and the same BOLT bus service operates between Portland and Vancouver, so more options to choose cheap tickets to fly ;-)

Plan for the first day

Our flight landed in Managua @ noon and our first night stay was in the Ometepe Island, since I had to coordinate the ferry timings and reaching the hotel before very late, I arranged for a taxi, with the hotel owner in Ometepe, to pick us up from the airport to take us to the ferry dock in San Jorge that's two hour taxi ride.

Trip to San Jorge

Managua airport is very small and getting through the immigration/customs was pretty simple. I was expecting a lot of run down buildings and bad roads on the way because I was thinking that this country is out of their civil war just less than 30 years back and it's one of the poorest countries, but to my surprise the roads are very good.  Didn't find a lot of shops on the road to San Jorge except a gas stations where we stopped to get some local currency and water bottle.  We were looking for some roadside places to eat but couldn't find any.

Taste of Road Side Food

Street Food near Ferry
We reached San Jorge around 245 pm and there's nothing much to eat in the ferry station, so Sharada & Shabina (my daughters) who could speak good Spanish went out of the ferry station looking for some vegetarian food to buy while I was taking care of our backpacks. One of the stupid things that I did was related to the amount of money that I withdrew from the ATM in our stop, while I was thinking that I was withdrawing close to $100 equivalent Cordobas, I withdrew only $10 equivalent of Cordobas and I gave my kids $5 worth of Cordobas to eat their lunch and get me some lunch.  I realized this only after they left but to my surprise after having their lunch, they returned with my lunch and some Cordoba change ;-)   The food is really good and less expensive (or cheap) in the local places.

Ferry to Ometepe

El Che was waiting for us and a couple of vehicles to board before taking off to the island by 4 pm.  Unlike most places that we visited the tickets for the ferry ride needs to be paid at the ferry - wondering what they would do if someone rides without money ;-)  I was worried about not having enough local currency to pay for the ferry but the US Dollar is accepted everywhere and the change is provided in the local currency.

Foreigners In Nicaragua

Met an American guy aged around 55-60, who moved to Ometepe Island from Hawaii five years back and
enjoying his quiet life there.  When inquired about what the heck he does in Ometepe, he answered that he enjoys reading and having a quiet life - when he had to drive an hour to cross five mile distance in Hawaii, he decided to make the move.  He spends summer months, when it rains like crazy in Ometepe, with his grandchildren in Oregon and we met a number of Americans & Europeans in this trip who decided to take life easy either in Nicaragua or in Costa Rica.  Costa Rica has advantages over Nicaragua in the health care area but the living expenses pretty economical in Nicaragua and the real estate is very cheap.

Lake Nicaragua Sunset
The ferry ride was about ninety minutes to Moyogalpa and on the ferry we met two Swedish medical students who were making one day trip to the island to climb the Maderas volcano.  Since we didn't have any plans for our days in the island, we decided to climb with the Swedish friends the next day.  They didn't have a place to stay that night but very lucky to find a place very close to our hotel in a hostel after calling a few places and we were able to car pool with them to the hotel.  These guys spent about 3 months working in Mexico helping the health care facility in a small town, started their travel to the south via Guantemala and Nicaragua to Costa Rica.

Haridas in Nicaragua

The most part of the ride to our hotel was in very nice roads but the last 30 minutes of the ride was extremely bad and the worst part of it was that it's in dark.  The hotel we were staying is owned by a German named Hari and when I mentioned that it's an Indian name, his reply was that his full name is Haridas - very Indian.  He lived in India for a long time, traveled most parts of North India and in a way that he's more Indian than I ;-)  Had very good discussions about his Indian experience, why Nicaragua and the plans by the Nicaraguan government to build the shipping canal competing with Panama.  After him moving to island, he changed the culture of how the horses are treated. Some of the people in the Ometepe Island concerned (my perception after talking to a few people) that the canal won't bring a lot of employment to the locals but there'll be a lot of Chinese will be coming to do the work, also the canal will change the whole character of the island.

Hari advised us to start the hike after 8am but before 9am to avoid the fog at the top of the volcano at the same time enough time to get back to hotel before dark.  He volunteered to coordinate with the hostel manager where our Swedish friends were staying regarding the guide for the hike.

Maderas Volcano Trek

Maderas Trail
Our Swedish friends showed up at 930 am with the guide and guide's girl friend, and we were fickle minded whether to start the hike that late but since we didn't have anything planned, we decided to start the hike and discussed about turning back at 145 pm.  Looking at the mountain, it didn't look good at all, it was very foggy and we're hoping to have a good view from the top and we thought that starting this late might help us.  The hiking got pretty strenuous after the first hour with steep slopes, muddy tracks and places where we had to climb holding on to the tree roots/branches or cables.  The views of the Ometepe Island and the water falls in the volcano was excellent but after two hour there's not much views but hiking in cloud forest which had completely different climate from where we started.

On Top
The Swedish girl spotted a small snake on the side of the trail after crossing it, it was crazy to hear from the guide that it's a poisonous snake and it won't do anything if we didn't disturb the snake.  It all made sense  but seeing the snake and needed to face it to climb up was little scary.  Anyway, we moved on after waiting for a few minutes without having any encounter with the snake.  We meet two other guys who are from Sweden from the same town as our friends climbing down.  One of the guys couldn't climb up because of his knees, so they decided to turn back just an hour away from the top.

We reached the windy and cloudy top around 130 pm and couldn't see the crater at all, there're no views
except the satisfaction of reaching the top on time ;-)  The hike down was pretty bad for the first two hours and everyone in the group fell down at least ones (including the guide and his girl friend) because of the muddiness or steepness of the slope.  We reached the base almost close to the sun set and by the time we reached the hotel, it was dark.

Overall, the hike was great in experiencing a different micro-climate at the top of the mountain and good time in the cloud forest.  We saw only five people in our trek, so in a way that we had the whole volcano for ourselves that day.  Even though, the trails are in very good condition given how much it rains there, it is better to go with the guide because there's absolutely no traffic or trail marking there.  The guide mentioned that a young hiker lost his way a few years back and found dead.

Options for Travel in Ometepe

After the long and tiring hike, the dinner at the hotel (egg plant lasagna) with the cold beer was awesome.  We met a Sri Lankan guy and his Russian girl friend, who are from Toronto.  Enjoyed talking about the countries that the guy lived over a period of his preteen-age (India, Germany, Tanzania, UK and Canada) years and how his parents decided not to travel anywhere once they got settled in Toronto.

When inquired the horse riding prices, it's little expensive for Nicaragua (but after reaching Costa Rica, we were cursing ourselves for not riding horses with Hari), so we decided to skip the horse riding and decided to leave Ometepe in the noon ferry so that we could reach Granada before night.  To catch the ferry at noon, we had the option to take either the public bus, which takes about 3 hours, or take the taxi, that takes about 90 minutes, to reach the ferry dock - we decided to take the taxi and spend the saved time wandering in the village.  There's not much to do in the village and if I planned better, we should have hired the Vespa to go around the island.

Chicken Bus Ride

 Ride from Moyogalpa ferry dock to San Jorge was uneventful despite the fact that it's the day before Christmas.  We were thinking that we got the taxi for the very cheap rate of one-third of the normal price to go from the ferry dock to the bus station, but later on we found out that the normal way of negotiating or quoting price for the taxis in Nicaragua is per person rate (even if you are traveling as family) ;-)  The taxi driver dropped us closer to the bus stand and walking through the congested roads to the bus stop reminded me of India.  In a way, the Central america reminds me more of the roads, markets and congestion of India.

Once we were in the bus, we were able to store our backpacks inside the bus on the luggage rack and settled down.  It was very hot and humid, we didn't know what time the bus would leave.  There're a bunch of street vendors selling food, water and snacks in the bus, we decided to try some sweet bread and it was good.  The bus was full with standing crowd before the driver decided to start the bus and the ride to Granada took about 2 hours which wasn't bad at all.  There're people in the bus with with Chicken and a small dog ;-)  The bus made a few stops to pick up and drop people on the way and the price for the two hour bus ride was about $2 per person which is way cheaper than the taxi fare of $15 per person.


The walk from the bus stand to the main square was about 500 meters through the main market street - being the Christmas eve, it was very crowded and fun to watch the people and things on our walk to hostel.  There were no grand Christmas decorations in town except a giant (artificial) Christmas tree in the town center and at sunset there's a simple Christmas procession.

The hostel was small and really beautiful with a small swimming pool inside the hostel.  The hostel is managed by an Irish guy, Gary, who moved to Nicaragua about three years back who bought the hotel property, in a central location, using ReMax real estate company.  We met  a couple, from Portugal, who stays in this hostel and commutes to Managua everyday (about 90 minute ride) to attend the medical school.

Christmas in Granada

Granada is a small town and we walked around the whole town in a couple of hours, visiting churches and shops, the day we arrived there.  The people in the churches were decorating the churches around 8 pm on the Christmas eve for the mid-night mass. Granada seems to be mostly a party town with a lot of bars and restaurants, and there's not much to do in the town other than eating and drinking.  One interesting thing about the Christmas eve was that there's a lot of fireworks at night to celebrate the arrival of Christmas day ;-)

We ventured further into the city in non-touristy areas in the morning after having waffles and pan cakes in the Kathy's Waffle house.   Most of the shops were open during Christmas day but didn't see a lot of action in town.  The town, the parts out side the touristy main square, is clean and safe but the long iron grills at the shops and houses indicated that the safety at night may be different from what we felt at day time.  The houses are very colorful around the city.  After wandering off most part of the morning around the city and relaxing around main square, we decided to head off to the Laguna Apoya earlier than planned.

Negotiating With Nicaraguans

The bus services from Granada to Laguna Apoya was not operating at full schedule on the Christmas day, so decided to spend $15 for the taxi ride to our hostel which is located inside a crater.  Nicaraguans are easy to negotiate, easy to convince what we could pay and very friendly people.  Not sure whether so many years of civil war made them sick of fighting and being aggressive !!  really, we never had any issue with street vendors, taxis or any one else in negotiating the prices.  Very friendly people.


On the way to our hostel, we were able to spot a number of young people having alcohol on the road side and most of these guys are much younger than 16 years.  The alcohol is cheaper than fruit juices in most of the places where we were getting our drinks.  I can confidently say that Flor de Cana is one of the best rums that I had and it's dirt cheap.  Alcoholism and teen pregnancies seem to be major problems in addition to the lack of the employment opportunities in Nicaragua.  

Laguana Apoya

Our hostel was a cool place managed by a couple of French friends who decided to move to Nicaragua and provide hostel facilities to fund the education for the local kids.  First of all, living inside the crater and swimming in the lake inside the crater was awesome, the water in the lake is the cleanest fresh water in Nicaragua.  There were kayak, tubes and other beach accessories provided by the hostel to enjoy the lake.  The lake was huge, clean and not crowded at all.  We were able to relax in the hostel with the cool breeze, warm water and cheap beer.

In the windy weather, wavy waters, it was initially difficult maneuver the kayak and ended up going towards people swimming in the water, after a few minutes learned the technique to stay calm and paddle.  It is a nice place to wind-down for a couple of days with swimming, reading books in the hammocks or just lying down in the beach.


One of the greatest thing about travel is the people we meet and discussions that we have.  In this place we meet a couple from Sweden whose daughter decided to study in Leon to immerse in Spanish.  Initially, they were wondering why not Spain but overall they are happy with the University in Leon and their daughter's stay in Leon.  Can't forget the religious discussions with a guy from Montana and a guy from German just after dinner.  I was surprised to see a number of Americans traveling to Nicaragua instead of the typical touristy places of Costa Rica.

Masaya Market and Interesting Paintings

After enjoying the sun rise and early morning in the beach, we took the chicken bus to Masaya with a Danish couple who were staying in the hostel and traveling from Belize to Rio by road.  Other than the hammocks, we couldn't find any handicrafts that interested us to buy.  One type of the paintings that we couldn't forget about seeing in Masaya was that the painting of man or lady sitting in the toilet (especially big size women) and using the toilet paper - not sure why this painting is all over the market !!!

Mini-Bus Travel

The mini-buses in Nicaragua are much better than the chicken buses and they are 12 seat mini vans.  They leave as soon as they fill up and costs almost same as the buses.  We had to pay for a seat to keep our backpacks and other than that the trip was quick and easy to Managua from Masaya.  And in the UCA bus station, we got another mini-bus to get to Leon immediately.  The public transportation with the mini-buses is pretty good between the touristy towns.

Reaching Las Penitas

Las Penitas Beach
We were asked to keep our backpack next to our seats and in front of us, so no charge or seat for the bags for the ride from Managua to Leon.  I was worrying about traveling at night in this road before reaching Nicaragua, I was imagining that the road conditions would be primitive - but I was wrong.  The only thing that of a concern was the speed of the vehicles and how they were overtaking each other.  We left Managua around 3 pm and reached Leon just before 5 pm in a very comfortable ride in the mini-bus.  Since it was getting closer to the sunset, we got a taxi for $11 to get to Las Penitas and reached our hostel in 45 minutes.

Eco Room

What I noticed about Las Penitas when we reached our hostel is that it's a small beach town with a lot of dogs all over the place. We checked into our eco-room which is made up on bamboo sticks and honey bucket kind of toilet in the restroom.  SO when you are planning for the eco-room, inquire how it'll be different from a regular room;-)  It is not bad at all and the shower area has the dried palm tree branch sidings, so it was a truly an eco-room, and to prove this - we found a frog sitting on my bed the second night of our stay;-)

Even though the hostel is advertised as the beach front place, we couldn't see the sea from our room or from the hotel which was a let down and it's was 10 minute walk in the beach to get to the water.  After dinner at the hostel, one of the best restaurants in town, we walked around the town but didn't find anything interesting.  The next day it was noisy very early in the morning with the dogs barking and vehicles honking.

Practicing Spanish and Getting Beer

We spent the whole day swimming in the beach that was not crowded at all and enjoyed the strong waves as well as the feel of hundreds of small fishes (sardines) hitting our body.  We located a nice restaurant at the beach, where we parked ourselves to enjoy food and drinks, in between our swimming ventures.  At the afternoon, after spending more than four hours in the beach, I wanted to have a bottle of beer, so went to the counter  for ordering the beer and to practice my Spanish.  The whole restaurant was managed by only one waiter and I told him "Pardon...una cerveza par favor" for that he replied "Litre" which I assumed that he's saying he'd bring it to me later, I answered "Si...gracias". But to my surprise he brought a one liter bottle of beer and then only I realized my Spanish understanding skills suck ;-)  So spent the rest of the afternoon finishing the liter of beer...

Tired of Relaxing

Wanted to learn surfing in Las Penitas but we couldn't find anyone teaching surfing in the beach and we couldn't find a lot of tourists in the beach either.  The beach is very beautiful and clean with nice restaurants spaced a kilometer apart.  After lazing in the restaurant and in the beach for more than 6 hours, we got tired and decided to go to the hostel to make reservations for the volcano surfing the for the next day.  Thinking about lazing in the beach, we all got bored after 6 hours doing nothing beach and wondering how people spend a week in the beach or in the swimming pool "relaxing".

Communicated with Quetzal Trekkers, which is a voluntary organization that raises funds for the local children by providing local tours and trekking services, for our trip to Cerro Negro Volcano.  After exchanging emails with them and booking the trip for next day, we returned to the beach for more swimming and to watch the sun set.

Volcano Boarding

Top of Cerro Negro
We arrived at the Quetzal Trekkers building in Leon by riding the chicken bus to Leon and then taxi at 730 am.  After storing all of our bags in their offices, we started out for the adventure.  Initially, there're only 4 people signed up for this adventure but slowly more people started to show up and the group ended up being 15 people.  All of us boarded at the back of a pickup truck before heading to the volcano the pickup truck stopped in the market to pick up some lunch for the group.  It was an hour long drive in a bumpy road to the bottom of the Cerro Negro volcano, which is an active volcano that is smoking hot.  This volcano erupts almost every 18 years, the last big eruption was in 1995 and the next one can be anytime.

Hike to the top of the volcano takes about 45 minutes with the 12 pound wooden board and the hike wss not hard but very HOT without any shades and the heat from the volcano.  Everyone talks about how scary it is to come down using the board but the scary part for me was to carrying the board in a very windy day to the edge of the volcano.  There's a 100-200 meter distance you have to walk on the top of the volcano in a narrow path with steep slope to the bottom of the volcano on one side and sulphur smoking hot inner crater on the other side.  Walking on this path with the heavy wind was scary and the wind resistance is more because the board is flat, the wind pushes you to the side of the path.  The day we were climbing, it was very windy and I would have fallen if I didn't manage to align the board in a certain angle.

Sharada Rocket Boarding

The sand or ash at the top of the volcano was hot and the guide indicated that we could bury an egg in the sand for 45 minutes to get it baked.  Digging the sand and feeling the heat just a few inches deep didn't make me question her statement.  After enjoying the view from the top of the volcano, we decide to board down.  I was very scared to look down from the edge and asked tons of questions before decided to go down.  Since you can control the speed of the board going down, it was not really scary or dangerous unless you want to hurt my daughter Sharada.  After sitting in the board, Sharada took off like a rocket and almost at the half way down, she let the board fly-off and she rolled on the ash.  She had minor scratches but nothing serious.  After collecting board, she continued her journey down faster.  But I was not that brave and descended slowly by stopping my board frequently.

Quetzal Trekkers gives the option to come down from the volcano the second time if any one interested and most of the people in our group wanted to board or run down the volcano the second time.  So whoever wanted to go up the volcano, started the trek after having some snacks at the pick up truck to enjoy the adventure.  Sharada and I ran down the mountain which was fun too but Shabina decided to board down.  I think that it's the only place where you can do this and we are glad that we did the volcano boarding with the great tour group.  The lunch prepared by our guide with simple fajita, guacamole, tomato, refried beans and chips was really awesome, and I got an idea on what to take for our camping trip in Costa Rica.

Interesting Friends

One of the couple who stayed with us in the Ometepe Island, who traveled from Quebec, was also part of the group that did the volcano boarding and we were surprised to see them.  We had an interesting conversation with two brothers, from LA, while climbing up the volcano that made the hike less tiring. One of the brothers is part of the Peace Corps that he joined after completing his bachelors degree in Business Administration to help one of the rural communities in Nicaragua in starting small business.  Getting into details  what he does in Nicaragua and experience he's gaining was very interesting.  In a way, he motivated me to consider looking into Peace Corps.  The other brother, who is doing Environmental Engineering, had done back to back foreign exchange programs in China and Argentina.

Time in Leon

Toured the Leon cathedral and climbed to the roof to get a good view of Leon before heading out to the super market to get the groceries for the Costa Rica camping and rum to take home.  The alcohol in the supermarket is much cheaper than the alcohol in the duty free shop, so decided to get the best.  After collecting the bags from Quetzals, went to the bus station to catch a mini-bus to Managua around 5 pm.

Panic in Managua

By the time we arrived Managua, it was dark a
nd raining, so we got a taxi to go to the hotel that we booked for the night before our flight.  I remember seeing the hotel being closer to a bigger mall as well as our friends from LA in the volcano group mentioned that there're a lot of restaurants closer to our hotel but the taxi driver started going in the back roads those were not lit properly, We started to worry but everything worked out and the hotel was in the back streets that's closer to the mall.


After unpacking all of our bags in the Aloha Hotel, we wanted to venture out eat, against the advise from our LA friends not to walk around night.  There's not much light or traffic in the back road and after reaching the main road, we didn't want to cross heavily trafficked road so we came back to the hotel room to order pizza from Pizza Hut.

Adios Nicaragua

The time that we spent in Nicaragua was excellent, we really enjoyed meeting very good friends and experienced a friendly culture/country.  The taxi to the airport came on time, checking in the bags and getting to the flight was very easy because Managua's airport is small.  The following are take away from our trip.
1.  Spend a night or more in Laguna Apoya because you will never get a chance to stay inside a crater
2.  Leon is less touristy and a lot more things to do than Granada.
3.  Ometepe is cool.  If possible, rent a Vespa and ride around the island
4.  Booze is cheaper in the supermarket than in the duty free shops.  Best rum.
5.  Public transportation is awesome and safe, use it whenever you can
6.  Nice, safe and fun place to travel for less money

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Short Visit to Sofia, Bulgaria

Immigration @ Bulgarian Border

I felt that someone was trying to wake me up and asking me for something, when I opened my eyes, realized that the train had reached the Bulgarian border and the person waking me up was the immigration officer.  Went back to sleep after he handed over my passport after looking at it, I didn't know whether he stamped anywhere in my passport or not.  I couldn't sleep longer because within a couple of minutes, another person came over asking for the passport and when I handed over the passport, to my shock, he put the passport in a plastic bag and left.  All this was happening when the train was stopped and after my passport was taken, I couldn't go to sleep.  I waited for about 15 minutes for my passport to be returned before getting worried about it and walked out of my room, started talking to the guy in the next room about his passport (Japanese) and he's worried about it too.  This guy had been travelling for the last six months from Japan and visited a number of countries like India, Malaysia, Singapore, Romania, Balkans, etc.,  and planning to spend the next six months backpacking around Western Europe and Russia.  The train had been standing in Ruse, Bulgaria for more than hour and still no sign of our passports - Since more number of us was waiting for the passports, I was not worried about it much.
 Finally, there's a guy came over to our compartment with a bunch of plastic bags trying to pronounce Asian names by looking at the passports.  In some cases, we had to point to him which one was our passport before he could check our faces and delivered the passports.  I wished that I had known about (non)process Bulgarian immigration beforehand but it was totally different from any other immigration done anywhere in the world, most of the places you'll normally get out of the train to go through the immigration process where you could still see the passport being, from the collection to delivery process is pretty scary.

Where is the Tour

The plan is to go to the Palace of Justice before 11am to join the walking tour of Sofia but the train reached Sofia at 1030am, one hour later than it's supposed to.  The train station is pretty antique (even with developing country standards) for a country's capital.  I couldn't find the Information desk to figure out where the Metro station is or how to get to the Palace of Justice...luckily the girl from Estonia was helpful and took me to Metro station before they go on their way to their destination.  The Metro is pretty new, just less than two years old, and looked really good.  The person at the Metro counter didn't speak English, but very helpful and showed me in the map where I needed to get down for the Palace of Justice.  After getting the tickets for almost to nothing price, while waiting for the train, trying to figure out where I needed to get out and how to get to the start of the walking tour - but reading the name of
 the places in  Cyrillic script was really confusing.  Now I could understand what would happen to the travelers in India if there's no English names are listed with the local language names ;-)  Started talking to the girl who was waiting for the train and asking where to get down, how to get to my destination, etc.  She was very fluent in English, after some more conversation found out that she lives in Boston and visiting the family in Sofia.  When asked her where she went to school, she mentioned that she's a Razorback and did architecture degree from University of Arkansas, Fayetteville - where I did my graduate degree.  After that our discussions were about Fayetteville and the school before boarding the train.  More people in Bulgaria spoke English than in Romania so going to places in Bulgaria is not difficult if you are not shy asking directions from others ;-)  But reading the map and going to places was pain.

I was able to make it to the start of the walking tour on time and there's a huge crowd for the tour, so we had to wait for the additional guides for the tour.  I'll strongly recommend going on the walking tour if it's available in the cities you visit, because it is given by the locals and you'll get to learn local politics or reasons behind certain structure, etc.  During the tour, we were able to witness the protest against the President of the country; the guide was translating what they're saying and the background of the protests as well as the counter protests.  The number of people protesting during the summer months were low because everyone was at the mountains or in the beaches.  Sofia is a small place with 
most of the attractions around the Metro station near the statue of St. Sofia.  After the walking tour, got some beer from a super market and enjoyed the cold beer in the hot day in a local park watching the local scene.  Found a nice soup place that had some vegetarian options as well as wifi so that I could check-in for my flights and get an accommodation for a night in Istanbul, near the ferry station where I had to pick up my daughter.

I retraced the path of the walking tour to explore the attractions in much more details before heading to the bus stop to catch the bus to the airport.  I got pretty much tired and bored after walking around for two hours and went to a restaurant near the university to relax before I was ready to catch my bus.  The bus stops are very marked and I got the tickets to the airport at the University Metro bus counter because I didn't find any ticket booths around the bus stops.  Sofia airport is small and pretty easy to get to by the bus, only thing that you need to figure out before getting in the bus is which terminal that you need to get off and there's no clear sign at the airport about the airlines and terminals.

Sofia is a pretty small place without any great architecture or any major attractions in the city but there're very close by mountains where one can go to enjoy.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Backpacking in Romania - one week trip from Turkey

My Romanian Journey

Out of Cappadocia 

When I got out of my cave (actually cave hotel) at the early morning, I was cursing myself for booking the early morning flight out of Cappadocia but all that changed when I really opened my eyes.  The view from my cave hotel entrance at the early morning was awesome and there a number of colorful hot air balloons just taking off, they are very close that I could hear the noise from the balloon burners.  The plan is to catch the shuttle from the hotel to the Kayseri airport at 630am, the Dervish Cave hotel staff arranged for the shuttle at the last minute and got us some breakfast ready by 6am.  The shuttle was on time, we had an excellent sight of a number of hot air balloons and the traffic of their support vehicles on our way to the airport.

Kayseri Airport

The Kayseri airport was about an hour from the Cappadocia with decent cafeteria before the security hall.  My daughter was leaving to her college via Istanbul Ataturk (IST) airport and I was going to Bucharest via Sabiha (SAW), the plan was her to call or message once she checked in to her to flight to USA.  I was hoping that she could find a wifi site in the airport but with my experience at SAW airport, I realized that no free wifi available in the airport and to get the wifi access using one of the providers, you need to have a smart phone to get the access code.  I had to wait for another 8 hours before I could find out my daughter was on her way to USA.  While thinking about the hi-tech of getting wifi access, she seems to forget the lo-tech option of getting the phone card and make the call using the landline available at the airport ;-)

It's pretty short flight from Kayseri to SAW and the SAW airport was much bigger/better than I expected, with a lot of nice places to eat and chill out (but no wifi).  I couldn't believe that the Starbucks at the airport, but there's a small coffee shop in the security area where you could spend 10 Lira to get one hour of free internet.

At Istanbul Airport

While waiting for the flight to Bucharest, I had an interesting conversation with a dentist from Dallas area, who was traveling back home about the Turkish language and how the Ottomans didn't force the language on the people whom they ruled for about 400 years.  Couldn't comprehend how the Turkish language is not spoken widely in the areas ruled by the Ottomans.  I don't have an answer for this question yet.  He was saying that the cost of travel in Turkey is more than doubled in the last couple of years and I was shocked to see the prices equivalent (almost) USA prices.

Story of an American Traveller - Meeting with Jay

I was sitting next to Jay on my flight to Bucharest and after a few minutes of conversation with Jay, I realized that Jay's story is the interesting(!) story that I can talk when I talk about my trip to Romania.  Jay, who is from Utah (USA), is on a three week European trip covering Balkans and Romania, and who very well planned the trip by booking the hotels/air tickets had little misfortune hit him when in Croatia.  Jay lost his debit card, with no other currency but with only credit card, decided to get help from the credit card company asked them to send him money when he's in Croatia.  Not sure whether it is by design or God wanted to mess with him, he got all of the money he requested in Croatian currency just the day before leaving Croatia.  At that Jay didn't realize that Croatian money is pretty much useless outside Croatia.

 Struggle to Convert Kuna

Jay booked a hotel in Brasov and planning to take the train from Bucharest to Brasov after landing, told him that it's was plan too and told him that I'd wait after the immigration to see whether he could get some cash to support himself in Romania for the next two days.  You may think what in the world he's doing Romania without money...his flight back home is from Bucharest.  After clearing the immigration waited for Jay in the baggage area for more than 15 minutes and I was really tempted to leave but decided to hang around to make sure that he's fine.  Jay showed up after 25 minutes with a dejected look on his face because he found out that the Croatian money that he had couldn't be converted to Romanian money or Dollars or Euros.  He checked with a bunch of money changers at the airport but no luck.  He was ready to make changes to his flight and leave Bucharest next day.  I told him that I could lend him some money that he could use for the train tickets and after reaching the hotel, he could try to get cash advance to support himself...and he could PayPal the money to me once reaches home.  Jay didn't want to get any money from me and feeling guilty for me waiting for him.

 Gentlemen Agreement

Convinced Jay to go the train station with me and he could buy the ticket for me & him using his credit card to Brasov so that I could give him the train ticket money in cash for him.  The bad luck followed him to the train station too, when he was trying to use the credit card at the train station, they informed him that only the international tickets could be bought with credit card not the domestic tickets.  Since the train tickets reasonably cheaper, told him that he could get the money from his hotel but he refused to accept my money for the tickets and wanted to just hang around in Bucharest for his return trip.

I didn't book any hotels or tickets for my stay or trip in Romania and I decided to experiment just backpack without any planning.  So I didn't have any hotel or hostel reservations.  I asked Jay whether he'd accept money from me if he could share the hotel room (he booked a very nice place in the city center (Casa Wagner)) so that he could avoid hanging around in the train station/airport for the next two days.  So got the tickets for him to go to Brasov and got some dinner in the super market.  When Jay wanted to pay for the dinner in the super market, God showed up there with his punishing hand, and he was requested to enter PIN for the credit card purchase, which he didn't have...;-(  So in the two hour time frame that I spent with this guy, I was able to see how he was getting screwed by his misfortune.

Bucharest Nord

I read so much about how unorganized or chaotic the Bucharest Nord train station is, but don't believe it.  It is an easy place to navigate and there's a help/information counter right where you get out of the train where you find help.  There's a super market, money exchange and luggage storage facility in the train station - all well marked.

Romanian Hospitality

Bucharest airport is relatively small airport for the capital of a country and managing the communications in the airport was not issue.  Instead of taking a bus to the train station, decided to take the train from the airport (mini bus ride for 10 minutes from airport to airport train station).  I got a glimpse of the Romanian spirituality when I started with a Romanian guy (Alex) traveling from the airport to the train station.  Alex was returning from Ottawa, Canada from his two week training camp for the NGO work and he was indicating that the west is very materialistic, no one was spiritual there. Only after seeing the small status of Jesus in the mini bus, he was happy and he's glad to be home.  Alex's home is Transylvania and going in the same train to Brasov.  On our way to the train station, he was talking about time during Ceausescu and after he was toppled how the infrastructure is crumbling.  He invited me to his home in Brasov as well as willing to give us ride to the hotel from the train station.  The Romanians are very spiritual and I could see that whenever we cross the church in going in the bus, you can see a whole bunch of people do a quick prayer ;-)

 Arriving at Brasov

I could judge (may be I am wrong) that Jay was ill prepared for his trip and he was thinking that he could walk to the hotel but the hotel was at least 10 minutes away from the train station by taxi.  So we got a taxi for about less than $3 to go to the Casa Wagner hotel and by the time we reached the hotel it's midnight.  Jay was paranoid that the hotel may ask for the PIN number when they use the credit card, so he checked whether the PIN is needed before checking into the hotel.  The hotel was very well located and could spot a number of people at the city center having dinner or drinks at that time.

Visiting Dracula's Home  

Decided to explore the Dracula castle and the surrounding areas the next day by myself
and Jay indicated that he's going to explore Brasov.  The breakfast at the hotel was decent but I got woken up by the noise of people going to the breakfast area in the morning.  The hotel staff was not very helpful in getting my laundry done or getting more information going to places around the area, so decided to check out the tourist information center at the city center to figure the way around.  The girl, Iuliana, at the Information center was very helpful and informed that there's no need to go on a package tour but I could manage by myself going on the bus - also provided the bus information to go to Bran, where the Dracula castle is located.

The public transportation in Romania is (dead) cheap and the bus ride to Bran (about an hour away) cost me less than $5.  I had to take a local bus from the city center to Autogara#2 to catch the long distance bus to Bran.  Getting the bus ticket and bus from the city center was not a problem at all and luckily I had asked someone (sign language) in the bus where Autogara#2 and he told me where to get down.  I thought that the long distance bus stand should be easily identifiable from the bus, but I was wrong...I had to cross the road to go to a different area for the bus stand.

While walking to bus stand, I met Rachel who got down from the same bus and going to Bran also.  So we decided team up and explore Bran & Rasnov.  The Dracula castle looks small but walking through the castle interior shows the awesome design of the palace in fitting in so many rooms so nicely.  Getting here by bus is so easy and on the way to the castle there are a lot of shops to eat or buy souvenirs.  If you are planning to visit, go early, else you will be spending some time in the lines.

 Visit to Rasnov

Rachel and I decided to reach Rasnov and have lunch there before visiting the Rasnov fort thinking that the lunch choices in Rasnov would be better.  But we were wrong and there're only a very few places for lunch at Rasnov.  The bus, which is a 12 seater van, dropped us off near the center of the town and there're not many people in the town - maybe it was siesta time.   Rachel is an elementary school teacher in UK and with my limited knowledge of education about education system, we were discussing how the schools are run in our respective countries.  After having lunch in a pub, we started walking towards the fort which initially started off as one kilometer walk ended up longer than that.  At one point we were wondering whether we were going to the right place - later on we found out that the bus normally drops off people in a different place, very closer to the parking lot of Rasnov fort.

While having lunch at the pub, we saw a group Hari Krishna follower distributing pamphlets in that area for the band playing in the music festival in Rosnov that night and the name of the band that they were promoting was Maha Mandra band.  

There is nothing impressive about the Rasnov fort but the view from the top was really good.  We took the fun train (tractor pulling a few carriages) to the top to save time and we took the same train to come down after spending about 30 minutes in the fort.  We were not sure whether the bus to Brasov will stop, so decided to walk back to the Rasnov town to catch the bus.  It was getting closer to 5pm and we were worried that we may not back in Brasov for the walking tour, so we decided to try hitch hiking to the town.  First couple cars that passed us were full and almost an empty van with two elderly couple didn't stop but after crossing us they stopped at about 25 meters.  We started running towards the van, we found out later that they stopped the van to take pictures of some birds but seeing us running towards the van, they gave us ride to the city.


While waiting for the bus to Brasov, a car pulled over asked us where we were going, asked us to pay the bus fare to go to Brasov and on the way picked up two more people.  Asked him whether he's running competitive business with the bus service, he indicated that he was on his way to Brasov and making money on the way ;-)

 Back to Brasov

On the way back to Brasov, I was thinking about Jay and wondering what he had done that day.  Since the hotel is right on the city center, checked with the receptionist whether she had any news about Jay but none.  While waiting for the walking tour, there was flag lowering ceremony kind of a thing was happening at the city center at 6pm with music and marching band.  The guided tour of Brasov was excellent, walked for more than 2 hours and at the end of the tour I was totally ready to hit the bed.  Went alone for dinner near the city center area and dinned with a couple of guys from Jordan touring Romania.  By the time I was back from dinner, Jay was in the room and we talked about the day and the plan for the next day.  Even though, Jay had some money, he didn't spend any because he was paranoid about the next two days.

 More (Sad) Stories from Jay

Asked him about his logic for not spending the money that he had for food or anything, he came up with the other troubles he went through during the trip and it was bad.  While traveling from Serbia to Croatia in the train, he boarded the train at mid-night, got into the compartment, climbed up to his upper berth and slowly unpacked his stuff (in the dark) because a couple of other guys were sleeping in that compartment.   When the train conductor came to check the tickets Jay looked (almost) everywhere for the tickets without disturbing the other passenger at early morning wee hours and he couldn't find the ticket. The conductor kicked out of the compartment and asked him to sit near the exit door near the toilets are and he tried to sleep sitting there.  It was pretty bad because of the looks he was getting from the passenger going around that area and the conductor was not willing trust him to let him stay in the compartment.  After the daylight arrived, he went to his compartments to find the ticket between the seats and showed it to the conductor to get back his pride back (at least some of it).

 Jay's Trouble in Turkey

Jay's return trip to Utah was from Bucharest and he was flying to Bucharest from Croatia with 20 hr stopover in Istanbul.  After losing his debit card in Croatia, Jay got his Croatian money from the credit card company just a day before flying out of Croatia and he landed in the Istanbul airport where he had to get visa to get to the city & to his hotel.  The visa section in the Istanbul airport doesn't accept credit card and need the visa fee of US$20 for the visa.  When Jay decided to stay in the airport for the 20hrs, someone in the visa realized his situation and helped him to get the visa.  And after all of these God's tests, I met Jay in the flight to Bucharest from Istanbul ;-)  At that point, he was not willing to take any more troubles and ready to go back home, I could understand why he wanted to hang on to the cash.

 Sinaia Visit

 After having breakfast at the hotel with Jay, wished him good luck on his trip back home, decided to leave my bags with the front desk and left to the train station to make the trip to Sinaia to visit the Peles Castle and monastery.  The train was late by an hour, so looked for the mini buses and luckily the buses to Sinaia go from the bus station near the train station (there are 3 different bus station and depending on where you want to go, you have to go to different bus stands).  Even though reaching Sinaia early, I made a mistake of spending too much time in the monastery and when reached the Peles castle, there was a long line to get into the castle.  The arrangement of the castle tour was a complete mess, first there were different lines for language groups where the wait was long, at the start of the tour you have drop of your backpacks and put 
Peles Castle
cover over the shoes (looks like they don't want to vacuum the place even though it's built with centralized vacuum ;-)) The palace was built late 1800s and early 1900s,  really impressive and built with modern heating, elevators and other niceties at that time.  While walking around and taking pictures near the palace, I met Jay again (what a small world) and wished him good luck.

 Leaving Brasov

Instead of staying in Brasov for one more night, decided to head out Sighisoara and I was confident that I could find hostels to stay.  I decided to make a quick trip to Poiana Brasov, which is just 30 minutes bus ride from the center, before leaving Brasov and the train @830pm was working out better.  Because of the bus schedule to Poiana Brasov (every one hour there's a bus), I was not able to spend more than 15 minutes in Poiana Brasov and not sure what I could have done if had more time, because it was ski resort and not many things to do in summer.  The drive was good and there are places where you could see the mountains and Brasov city, and since the bus ticket was about 50 cents (return), it was not a bad way to pass some time.

 Encounter with Romanian Red Neck

The train ride from Brasov to Sighisoara was interesting that interacted with a different kind of character in the train.  I was sitting next to a non-smiling Romanian guy and a Romanian couple in the train, and my tries to start a discussion with the Romanian guy was in vain, and since our compartment had a lot of empty seats, leaving my backpack on my seat I moved to a seat closer that empty so that I could stretch my legs.  There was a drama going on a couple of seats from me where a drunken deaf and dumb was having a lot of fun and his wife was trying control him.  He was trying to run to the toilet for a smoke and the wife was trying to control him.  This was going on for the whole 3 hours of the trip. 
 Whereas the Romanian guy who was sitting next to me took out the water bottle from my backpack and poured some water in his water cup without bothering to ask me.  I thought that it's fine but when I was trying to get my backpack ready to get out of my station, he was arguing with me in Romanian and didn't want to give away the water bottle.  Don't think that he was a poor guy but very well dressed character and the couple sitting across from us having their laughs because a few minutes back he just lied across on the seat putting his legs on the aisle.  Whoever was trying to walk on the aisle had to hop over his leg and he's not responding to anyone asking him to move the leg.  Once the drunken man was trying to go to the other side and I was afraid that he's going to hop over but luckily he decided to go to the toilet on the other end of the train.  The conductor didn't seem to do anything about these and not sure how to handle these kind of characters in the train.  I wished the good luck to the couple sitting across from me because they were traveling with this non-smiling Romanian guy for the next 8 hours.

 Hunting for Hostel @ Mid-Night

Sighisoara has a small train station and the center of the city is about 15 minutes walk from the train station.  I had a list of 3 hostels that are about 5 minutes walk from the train station, so I was not worried about walking around and looking for a place at about mid-night.  The first hostel very close the train station didn't have any beds so I started to walk towards the other places, while looking for those two place I came across another hostel that I didn't try to get a  room but after walking about 10 minutes, I couldn't find the two hostels I had in my list.  Walking in the dark at night was not the problem but the number of stray dogs in Romania was giving me fits..;-)  When I asked for any close by hotels in the petrol station at the end of the road, the guy at the station offered to take me in his to drop off at a hostel and when we reached hostel that I didn't bother to check while passing by, they didn't have room.  But the staff at the hostel (Gia Hostel) was helpful in directing me another hostel (Hostel Mario), and misfortune that hostel also didn't have beds available. 
With Mary

 The German guy managing hostel Mario, Marios, asked me whether I was interested in staying in an apartment, asked him how much it would cost me and he told me that same amount as the hostel (<US$30).  He wanted to check with his friend whether she has any availability and it would be very close to his hostel.  Remember that whole discussions were happening in German and sign language at mid-night ;-)  An elderly German lady (I forgot her name, let’s call Mary) showed up in less than 5 minutes and we three (Marios, Mary and I) left to her apartment after I sent myself an email what I was doing.  With all of the dumb things that I may do, I try to compensate with a few close to smart things ;-)  Mary has two apartments in a big building, while staying in one of the apartments with her husband who works with Marios, she rents the other apartment 
@City Center
and the apartment was very well furnished.  After showing me where the coffee machine, coffee and other things that I may need to use the kitchen, Mary invited me to her apartment to meet her husband who was watching football while she was running business at mid-night;-)  We four started to discuss in German/English/sign language after having a couple of shots of homemade brandy about where I was from, where all I had been, how I like Romania, etc.  We were sitting together having drinks and talking(!!) for 30 minutes before I decided to give the apartment rent to Mary and go to my room to sleep.

 Sighisoara Visit

Woke up around 830am, dropped off the apartment keys with Mary around 9am, headed out the hostel Mario to thank Mario and leave my backpack with the hostel Mario before heading to the city center.  Sighisoara is a nice little town where there's not much crowd despite the town is so beautiful like any other touristy places in the Western Europe.  After having a nice breakfast, walked around the town for a couple of hours before headed to the train station to catch the train to Sibiu after picking up the backpack.

 Train Trip to Sibiu

On the way to Sibiu, I met girls from Prague, Susanne and Carole, who were hiking the Transfagarasan Mountain for the last four days on their way back home.  We had very discussions about the Indian culture, marriages in India, the relationships in Europe and other topics.  Susanne is doing medical in Prague and she was stating her problems about getting to know someone in her busy and having relationships.  She was saying that the arranged marriages may be a good thing but when I said that in the Indian cities the arranged marriages disappearing or seeing more divorces, the discussion got much deeper but at the end we didn't solve the problems of the world ;-)  But it is amazing to note how meeting random people in train, having very good discussions and build friendships - advantages of backpacking.  Carole's sister's boy friend is studying in San Diego and the discussion went on how he was forced into getting driver license within a couple week because of lack mobility without car and both Carole and Susanne do not have driving license ;-)

Because of my Sighisoara hostel experience, I wanted to make sure that I'd have a place to stay so I just sent emails to two hostels in Sibiu enquiring about beds and wanted them to hold a bed for me.  I was not sure whether, they had any beds are not but I was not worried because I was reaching Sibiu around 330pm, so more time to figure out.  Luckily, the fist hostel (Felinarul hostel) that I sent the email to, had a bed for me and it was a very old building but very well maintained.

The owner of the hostel mentioned about a couple of things happening in the town what’re really interesting: Gypsy King Funeral the next day and middle Ages festival in the next two days.  There's non-stop news program about Gypsy King Funeral and they're projecting more than 100,000 gypsies showing up for the festival.

New Friends 

After settling down in the room, met the other roommates, Monica and Pia, and started talking about the field trip to the Gypsy funeral the next day.  Everyone was interested in going for the funeral next and the hostel staff, Mark, is from UK was interested in going too, so we all decided to meet around 1030am to head out to the funeral.  Monica from Los Angeles, who is getting ready to go to freshman year in UCLA, is backpacking Baltic and Romania for six weeks before starting her undergraduate program.  Pia is from Switzerland, who could speak about 5 different languages.  Just when we were getting ready to go for dinner, we got the company of Pier and Lawrence from Paris, and Lawrence mentioned about a Greek place that's supposed to be good in Sibiu (recommended by someone in Brasov).  After failing to locate the Greek place, we settled down in a pizza place for dinner where we enjoyed dinner, wine and tukia (local alcohol) for a couple of hours before heading out to the hostel.  It's almost 1am, Pier wanted to go to another bar, so all of us went to the bar on the way to our hostel and the gals bailed after 5 minute.  We hung around there for another hour talking about Lawrence's work as a documentary videographer and his experiences before going to our hostel.

Gypsy King Funeral

When started from the hostel for the funeral, we have a group of seven people lead by the hostel staff Mark and we all excited about the King's funeral - it's a surprise to all of us that there's a king for Gypsies.  It's a long walk to the new part of the town and gave us exposure to the real Sibiu.  When we reached the king's home, there're not thousands of people for that matter not more 150 people in that area but the slowly the crowds started to gather - mostly spectators not Gypsies.  There're about 500 people in that area at the maximum and a lot of Gypsy gentleman very well dressed giving TV interviews to a number of TV channels.  The president of Romania was attending the funeral to pay respect to the king and we were just 10 feet  away from the President of Romania. 
 There're a lot police but we couldn't spot any security around the President and a lot of people can get very close the President.  The funeral procession was supposed to start at 1pm but there's no sign of that at 1pm, there're about 500 people in that area at 1pm and we didn't think that the funeral procession anything great, since we already spent 2 hours there, we wanted to see the King but the French guy lost their patience and left.  I was sitting on the railway track bridge for some time and not patience, we all decided to wait there 'til 2pm for the funeral, if not nothing happens, we'd leave at 2pm.  Nothing happened at 2pm so we all left to visit a local market place we saw on the way to buy some fresh fruits.  Later on we read in the internet that thousands of people were there, which seemed to be publicity news and not the real numbers ;-)

Walking to the other side of the town and waiting under the hot sun made us tired, so most of us bought some fruits in the local open market and after having lunch @Lucas, we went to the hostel to take rest.  Lucas is one of the best sandwich places I had been to in Romania and there're a lot of vegetarian choices there.  On the way to the hostel Monica, Pia and I decided to rent a car to drive in the Transfagarasan the next day and I was the driver because none of them know how to drive stick shift.

After taking rest at the hostel, I came back to the center to enjoy the Middle Ages festivities and see some of the local attractions.  The whole center was filled with local merchants and middle age related shows and music.  Also, there's a rock music band was playing in a different section of the center and a number of friends from the hostel were there.  While I was having a quiet moment enjoying the Middle Ages themed music at the center, I met Hugo from the hostel there and we left to have some beer.  Hugo was an IT consultant, travelling by bike from Netherlands and planning to cover Romania, Ukraine and Georgia in the next 2 months.  He was planning to visit his girl friend's place in Taiwan and after that planning to backpack in Burma in the next six months.  We talked for long about the IT consulting work in Europe and how it is different from US before going back to the hostel.

 Field Trip to Balea Lake

Tino, from Germany, wanted to join the gang for the Transfagarasan drive, to my luck he knows the drive stick shift and felt comfortable driving in Romania.  The Transfagarasan road was being listed as one of the best roads for scenery and fun driving experience, so we decided to do the drive and one the way back we wanted to go back to a Monastery.  We picked up the car from the Autonam near the city center and I started to drive towards the north end of the Transfagarasan road.  Overall, the roads are in very good condition and the 
literature talks about the road being gravel road which is wrong.  We never felt that the road was dangerous or we were taking a lot of risk (me being the driver).  The scenery is amazing and we stopped at the Balea Lake for an hour to have lunch and enjoy the views.

After crossing the tunnel, which is 820m long, near the Balea Lake the scenery as well as the weather completely changed - we saw the clouds moving in and started to rain.  Even when it was raining the road was good with drainage as well as traction.  We stopped near a lake on the way down to take 
some pictures and continued toward Curtea de Arges.  The view of the Transfagarasan dam simply amazing and we spent more time there than in the Balea lake area.  In such a beautiful area, the Romanian put an ugly Iron Man statue which does not suit there ;-(

The drive from the Transfagarasan dam to Sibiu took much longer than what we thought because of the speed limits and traffic, and we reached Sibiu around 930pm.  We had to stop over near the petrol station to get directions to get to our hostel, somehow Tino managed to drive to the hostel and Robert, the Autonam staff, came over to the hostel to collect the car.  We were happy that we drove on the Transfagarasan and we didn't have any incidents with the rental car.  After dropping off the car, all of us went out celebrate our drive and enjoy the dinner before we all go to different directions the next day.

 Return to Bucharest

Left the hostel around 530am after having the breakfast that Mark left for me in the fridge, to the train station to catch 6am train to Bucharest.  Had the goat cheese and bread that I got from the super market for the lunch in the train while enjoying the beautiful Romanian country side.  After leaving the backpack at the train station storage area, got the tickets to Sofia at the 11pm train and took the metro to the Palace of the People.

 Palace of the People

Getting the tickets for the tour of the Palace is an arcane process, where you have to drop off your passport at one place and pay at a different place.  So remember to take your passports with you if you want to take the tour.  The Palace is very impressive and could not believe how it was built within four years (I know that it was built by slave labors and abusing a number of people).  The sad part of the Palace is that it's not being maintained properly now and it will be sad to see such a national treasure getting wasted.  With two hours of walking, we saw only 5% of the overall Palace area.

Someone mentioned that the view of the Palace from the Carol's Park will be very impressive, so decided to walk to Carol's Park that has war memorial too.  It is the first place I have ever been where the soldiers were not standing stiff but just joking around near the mausoleum, also witnessed the eternal flame going off and one of the soldiers running around to get the light to start the flame ;-)  The view from the park is not that impressive but the park is a very beautiful place to relax and watch people.

 Winding Down

I spent about three hours walking around Lipscani square, University square and Revolution square before taking the metro to go back to the train station to college my backpack and catch the train to Sofia.  I spent only half a day in Bucharest and really think that there's nothing much to do for more than a day in Bucharest instead I would more time Transylvania.

The train to Sofia was delayed by an hour and while waiting for the train, met two girls, one from Prague and the other girl from Estonia, doing voluntary work in Sofia.  Started talking to them about the voluntary work they do in Sofia, it was impressive that they took time off from their regular work for six months to serve mentally challenged children in Sofia.  They took a weekend trip from Sofia to Bucharest because there's nothing much to do in Sofia and there are a lot of things to do in Bucharest than in Sofia.  They felt that Bucharest is much more modern than Sofia.

 International Train Experience

When I got in the train, there's a family already sitting in the seats assigned to me and it was the same case for another backpacker from Swiss too.  While we were wondering what to do, someone indicated not to worry about the reserved seat numbers and asked us to occupy the empty seats available.  We both moved to the next room in the compartment and wondering whether the conductor would kick us out, but that didn't happen.  The Swiss guy asked me to take the seat and he was getting ready to sleep on the floor.  When I went to the toilet, I noticed that the most of the rooms were empty in the train, so asked the Swiss guy to move to the next room where he could occupy the empty seat and could sleep on the seat instead on the floor.

 Final Thoughts

Overall the backpacking trip in Romania was good, made a lot of good friends and learnt a lot from the fellow travelers.  My advice to my friends is to visit Romania before the others find out about this hidden gem and prices start going up.