Friday, December 16, 2011

The Heart of Ukraine

So Ukraine is big. Of course in Canada it's all relative. Calgary is 12 hours away from Vancouver. Toronto is 6 hours from Montreal. There's big distances to cover. Ukraine itself isn't obviously as big as Canada, but the space between major cities and populations is pretty massive. Driving from Lviv to Kiev was a solid 8 hours in our packed little Mazda 2. Thankfully for the most part the highway between Lviv and Kiev has been upgraded for the upcoming Eurocup to move tourists and supplies through the country. It's of pretty decent quality with an average speed of 90km/h, but that still doesn't mean it's immune to the occasional horse wagon in your lane or a random villager trying to cross six lanes of traffic. Needless to say, driving on Ukrainian roads is a tedious process. Traffic fatalities are a reality of life in Ukraine.

To say we were relieved to arrive in Kiev would be an understatement. The drive had been long and tiresome and fortunately for me, Kat agreed to drive the last half of the journey. Rush house traffic awaited us on the outskirts of town and it took us about 45 minutes of stop and go driving to get us finally to our destination in the heart of the city. The GPS we had been using along the journey so far was a mixture of confusion and success. Sometimes it would lead us off onto a random pothole ridden country road, insisting it was the correct way to a major city. Thankfully as we drove into Kiev it was working as it should and led us directly to "Why Not?" hostel, which we had booked online the night before. Fortunately for us, the hostel has designated parking and we were able to once again not have to look at the car for a few days.

"Why Not?" Hostel is probably my new favorite hostel in Europe. Aside from Fresh Sheets of course. The owners Peter(from Poland) and Volva (from Ukraine) are some of the most chilled out guys I've met in my travels. Staying at Why Not is more like staying at your friends house. It wasn't uncommon for the owners to show up with a bottle of vodka, or birthday supplies and a cake in support of somebody's special day. The second night we were there, it was a guest Elena's birthday and the whole hostel came together in the common room to eat cake and drink vodka in her honour. It was a really great feeling to finally have somewhere to relax and feel at home.

As an owner I was surprised how generous Peter was as on our second day he offered to take us out to explore the town a bit. It's a good thing too as catching the "Metro" in Kiev can be a confusing experience to say the least. Signs in cyrillic, people moving in every which way and a very unsympathetic crowd at the entrance to every train door. The Metro doors are what I would describe as "Soviet". If you are caught within the door frame as the door decide to close, they don't reopen to let you pass. They slam on whatever limb is in the way and then stay closed on it with a death grip as the train rockets to the next station. We were helplessly left behind as only half our group was able to make it into the train before the doors slammed shut, leaving the rest of us lost in disbelief. Fortunately for us Kat knew the name of the stop we were to get off at and using her cyrillic skills managed to decipher which stop was ours. I watched in horror as somebody on the next platform sprinted for a train, prying the doors open and pulling themselves through, only to have their shoulder bag get caught outside the doors as the train pulled away from the station.

As we arrived at our next stop, we managed to scurry out of the Metro as Peter described our destination. We were going to an abandoned stadium on the outskirts of Kiev. Our first stop was an abandoned air vent that had been built to accomodate a new metro stop that was never completed. Apparently the stadium had been used for baseball or some other type of sport and then was eventually abandoned only to be turned into a medieval movie set complete with a large steel castle like structure that had been burned out during the filming. It was waiting there amongst the fog, for us to enter. We managed to make our way up to the top floor of the structure. For some reason it had been built extremely well. Made of angle iron and welded at every joint, it could probably survive the apocalypse. We explored the stadium and watched as a local rode her horse nearby until it got dark and we headed back to the metro and then to the hostel.

The abandoned stadium and movie set.

Stephanie exploring the interior of the air vent

Katarina taking a moment on the shoes of Kiev.

There was a lot to see in Kiev. Everything from outdoor markets to huge monuments and squares. A forever apparent soviet feeling to the city gave it a unique flare that made it different from any other city I had ever been to. The proximity to Russia, Chernobyl and the old eastern block gave it an air of wildness I had yet to experience in Europe. Since the Chernobyl tours had been recently cancelled by the government we decided to go and check out the Chernobyl museum. For a mere 1 euro, we entered and explored what I would call an "Art/Museum experiment". Unfortunately most of the museum was in cyrillic but at the same time a disaster of this magnitude didn't need much translation. On April 26th 1986, the world stood still as a reactor experiment went horribly wrong causing a chain reaction of events that eventually lead to an explosion in reactor #4. Most of europe was heavily affected and to this day there are still high levels of radiation within the exclusion zone of Chernobyl. Within the museum we saw a lot of exhibits decorating people for bravery, photos of citizens of the area and an exhibit of the children of Chernobyl. It was surprisingly quiet as we slowly made our away through the museum. We were constantly supervised by a ukrainian woman during the whole process of the visit which was a little bit strange. Not sure if they thought we were going to steal or deface something but it did make the experience a bit odd.

All the signs are towns within the exclusion zone.

Children of Chernobyl Exhibit.

I wouldn't want these guys knocking on my doorstep.

Given the nature and history of Ukraine it isn't uncommon to see displays and monuments of military might. Being a boy I found these to be uniqie experiences to get up close to military machines we don't normally get to see in Canada. As we explored Kiev throughout the week, we managed to finx the "Defense of the Motherland" statue. A massive silver statue of a woman holding a sword and shield... I'm assuming in the name of Ukrainian defense. The whole area is a beautiful square with a few exhibits surrounding it to see. The first day we found it, it was a bit too dark to take many pictures as we (more like I) had managed to get lost along the way. But the second time we managed to make it back was very rewarding. There were three museums in the area. One was for the defense of the motherland statue, the other two were military museums. Kat, Emmett and I decided to skip the motherland defense and go straight for the opportunity to sit in and get a closer look at some soviet era military machines. The first stop was the main museum. 5 hryvna (50 cents) for an entry fee. For some reason at most museums there is an extra fee to pay to take photographs without being hassled. It was 12 hryvna for the photo ticket as well. I'm glad I splurged as one of the exhibits was an opportunity to sit inside a MIG-23 fighter jet and put yourself in the shoes of a Ukrainian pilot for a few minutes.

Miles posing on some of the hardware.

More monuments.

Defense of the Motherland statue.

Emmett living out his boyhood fantasies.

For a plane nut, it was a magical experienced. We take it for granted when we watch "Top Gun" how easy it looks to sit in a cockpit and fly a plane. When you finally get to sit inside one and imagine the rumble of the afterburner with 28,000lbs of thrust under your ass it's a humbling experience. One thing I never really thought of. When you're a fighter pilot, there is a shitload of stuff to control. The amount of switches, gauges, controls, knobs, dials, sliders and handles is absolutely insane. In fact there isn't any free space in the cockpit other than the tiny amount of room allocated for the pilot. Kinda takes the romance out of flying a fighter plane but I'm glad I got to experience it.

Next door was an MI-24 Hind. Yet another soviet era machine of death. Built as an attack gunship it was a machine to be feared, especially during the soviet-afghan conflict in the 80's. For yet another small fee you could get inside and explore the guts of this monstrosity. It was especially cool to me because as you sat inside somebody had rigged up a speaker with a gun sound when you pulled the trigger... as it scared the crap out of me when I first found it. Flying an attack helicopter and shooting a gun... at least pretending too. I also realized that all the controls were still very much connected. If you pull on the stick, it would still move all the blades. The only thing missing was a working engine. Most of the time any museum exhibit you see is generally very static. The great thing about the Ukrainian military museums was the fact that you could get inside everything. Push the buttons, flick the switches, move the controls... and live out your boyhood fantasies.

Overall our time in Kiev was excellent. When I return I know one thing though. Fly in. I will certainly save myself the hassle and fly into Kiev instead of driving. Not to mention it's gotta nice and cheap lately with Wizzair. Anyways after six days at "Why Not?" hostel, we decided it woul be best if we started the long drive south back towards Croatia. But not before asking for a little help. Nina one of the girls at the hostel was gracious enough to help me translate some letters we had written to us by relatives who were living in Ukraine back in 1989. We weren't able to understand the letters due to the language barrier and we figured it would make an interesting twist if we could at least try to track down where they were from. Little did we know what kind of adventure we were about to get ourselves into...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lviv'ska Oblast

Finally we were in Lviv. We parked the car and fortunately for us, didn't have to get in it or even look at it for the next few days. Due to a recommendation from a friend we stayed at the "Kosmonaut" Hostel. The theme of the hostel was "Soviet Era" military. Needless to say I think they hit the nail on the head, as when you walk in you notice nothing but old military uniforms, a real russian space helmet, gas masks, old machine guns and plenty of old propaganda posters on every surface. A bit drab I would say other than the theme, the hostel was nothing too special but it was cheap and cheap is good.

I would call Lviv the cultural capital of Ukraine. It has a pretty central square surrounded by interesting districts and churches to see. What really makes Lviv special is the mixture of different restaurants, museums and historical places to see and experience. Everything from a museum dedicated to "Salo" (literally pig fat), to a crazy restaurant that you need a special password to get into. Lviv has all that somebody new to Ukraine needs. Our first visit was for a place of perogies and borscht at a restaurant called "Puzata Hata" (at least that's how it's said!). Home made Ukrainian food a la cafeteria style. I was pleasantly surprised when a try loaded with food and beer cost only 4 euros. Amazing.

We managed to get ourselves onto a free tour of Lviv and saw some of the sights. I've got to say that for a guy trying to film a lot of daily life in Ukraine, a free tour is the perfect way to get out. Traveling with a camera and tripod isn't easy in Ukraine. When you're holding a camera has a value comparable to some peoples yearly salaries, you get a lot of looks. I can't say I felt super safe walking around with the camera out, so I would repeatedly replace it into my camera bag. There is a sense of security you get when you're accompanied by a tour guide and a group of people with other nice cameras. You don't worry about being singled out and victimized or worry so much about people giving you dirty looks as there are about 20 other people taking the same photos. By the way a bit of a shameless plug here. If you're traveling with a camera, tripod, computer, hard drive etc... I highly recommend the Lowepro Fastpack 250. Great system so you can whip your camera out, grab some shots and replace it quickly while being nice and discreet. Not to mention it is well padded an holds nearly all the gear you'll need for the day.

After our fantastic tour of the city, we decided to hike to the top of City Hall. It's a massive tower that you can climb to the top of for the best view of Lviv. I think it was 10 hryvna which is about a euro. As we climbed to the top we realized how out of shape we were after not seeing the steps of Dubrovnik in over a month. At the top, the view was beautiful as it was definitely the highest point in town. I filmed plenty of clips as I was catching a great birds eye view of the city. Fortunately for us the bells didn't go off as they can be a bit deafening if you're nearby.

Our tour group

A few steps up to the top.

Great view of the city.

That evening we met up with Angela, my friend Katya's cousin. Back in April, Katya gave me a call wondering if I was free for a coffee. It just happened that at that exact moment I was with Emmett grabbing a coffee at 10th an Alma street. We were sitting around talking about the future, about potential travel for the fall and where Emmett would be willing to go. We were talking about returning to Ukraine and seeing the motherland. It was all a pipe dream but now that I think about it, it was all aprt of a much bigger plan that was actually falling into place quietly. The world had something in store for us.

So Katya shows up... with her cousin Angela in tow. Turns out Angela was from Ukraine. Lviv to be exact! So we talked about what it was like, the prices, things to see and at that point I invited her to my going away party that weekend. She came, we ate hamburgers and drank beer and played darts. Never in my wildest dreams would I actually have thought that we would see her in Lviv seven months later. It was a total trip to have Emmett there as well as she walked into the "House of legends" restaurant. It seems over seven months, she seemed to have grown up what seems like a few years. Her English was amazing compared to the previous months. In Vancouver I'm sure she was shy with her english, but in Ukraine she was a pro! We all ordered a vodka (turns out "one" vodka is actually a triple shot back in Van) and some food as she helped us translate some of the documents that we had received from my mother. Documents from 20 years ago that would hopefully help point us in the right direction to reuniting us with our family.

Angela's fiancee Nikolai came to visit us and we decided to head to Krjivka Restaurant. Well actually it was more like a bunker. As you walk up to the door, down the long brick hallway you realize there is no handle on the front of the doorto open with. You knock on the door and a big burly guy wearing a soviet era military outfit and wielding a machine gun answers the door. He says something in Ukrainian along the lines of "What's the password" as he says " Slava Ukraina!" which is your cue to answer "Hrvojem Slava" (I am slava). He then proceeds to pour you a shot of brandy which you must promptly take and then he shuffles you into the place. Based on the Ukrainian resistance movement, it has a pretty rugged setting for decorations. The walls are shingled raw log cuts, the toilet has a bit of an "outhouse" feeling to it, and the dishes are military style aluminum bowls. The food though was amazing and reasonable. Nikolai instantly ordered us a bottle of vodka, many shots were had, toasts were given and plans were made for the weekend. It was a great experience, especially Katarina's delicious potatoes and Mils and Emmett's potato pancakes. We left Krjivka nice and drunk only to be surprised by the first snowfall of the season. Enough snow to stick to items but not enough to cover the ground, I felt honoured to experience the first snow of the year in Lviv. Fortunate for us it was also the last snow we saw throughout our trip. Not sure what the odds of traveling Ukraine in November are without getting snow, but we certainly had a larger power on our side for the trip.

First snow of the year.

The next day we went to the "Salo" museum. A modern art museum, it was about 3 euros to get in, including a plate of Salo at the end. Now for a description of Salo. You either love or hate it. It is essentially pork fat. Pork fat in a cheese like state. Spread it on bread, slice it up or mold it into modern art. Salo was a cool experience except for the fact that at the end you get a platter of salo with a shot of vodka. The vodka was easy, chewing greasy funky fat was not. Needless to say we all gagged down a few pieces before we felt too sick to continue. I had the sick feeling of salo in my stomach for the rest of the day. Ugh, it still makes me feel ill when I think of it.

Potato pancakes at Krjivka

The largest piece of Salo ever exhibit.

A plate of pretty pig fat

Larger than life.

We all left the Salo exhibit a bit sick, but explored the town and checked out the public market in town. Mostly composed of pictures, knitted wool items and old soviet era and metal pieces, the market is a cool but somewhat limited place. I should have done souvenir shopping but seeing as I hate shopping period, I decided to put it off right until the very end of our trip.

Overall Lviv was a fantastic experience. I could easily return and eat myself retarded. Doing Ukraine in winter gives you a unique perspective on things. It was nice to see the town as it really is with the local people in winter. It was also amazing to get to reconnect with Angela and see a familiar face from Vancouver in such a different place. We planned to stick around and see a show at the local ballet show at the theater but unfortunately we realized that if we stuck around Lviv for much longer we would miss out Kiev. So we booked a hostel, hopped in the car the following day and made a B-line for Kiev. It was time to see the capital and all it had to offer.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What dreams are made of.

So I'm not exactly sure where to start. My last post was from Budapest. The start of our trip had begun, we were in a new eastern european city and life was peachy. We were about to cross the border the following day with our preconceptions of Ukraine firmly planted in our minds. We had no idea how much our minds were going to be blown the following day. Now it wouldn't be fair to cram our entire trip to Ukraine into one long post. I'm having a hard time containing my excitement without blurting it all out in one post as I tend to do. Instead I will break it down to a few episodes of travel, even though we've been back for a few days now.

So where do I begin? Well we rolled into Budapest and stayed at the Aboriginal Hostel. I would highly recommend them with their clean rooms, comfy beds, awesome staff and amazing free breakfast (Fresh waffles first thing in the morning!). We explored the town, ate ourselves silly on goulash and the following morning piled back into the car in preparation for out departure to the border town of Zahony/Chop. Three and a half hours of driving on amazing hungarian highways made the time fly by. Smooth highways, great signage, first world gas stations every ten kilometers with proper facilities made the drive nice and easy. As we neared the border we realized things were all about to change.

Welcome to Ukraine sucker!

I'm always a bit bummed out that you're not allowed to take photos or video at border crossings. There's always shitloads of confused people running around trying to get their dilapitated cars and documents in order for the crossing into the next country. Since joining the European Union a few years ago, Hungary now has to maintain strict border security to limit access to the other E.U. nations. Fortunately at this point we were heading in the other direction. Hungary was more than happy to stamp us through and push us forward to the Ukrainian border crossing. It became evident to us quickly that the border layout itself was haywire. The crossing itself is over a river with a long bridge connecting Hungary and Ukraine. As you drive up to the bridge, there is a serious lack of signage to indicate which lane you should be in as you cross. Unfortunate for us we happened to take "truck lane" across the bridge only be to be stopped by a border guard in a fluffy hat communist hat. As he yelled at us in Ukrainian, we indicated with universal hand signals to "go backwards". The only issue is that the bridge is at least 200 meters long. Asshole. So we backed the car ALL the way back down the bridge instead of him letting us merge into the other lane. Right before we reached the other end of the bridge, a truck drive decided to pull in and start honking his horn for us to go forward. Greaaaaaat. We drive all the way back across the bridge and arrive to more yelling and hand signals until the guard finally shakes his head and finally accepts our passports. Thank god. Until we realized these guys were just doing "pre-checks". The actual border crossing was 100 meters further. We were waived through to the next station where the car was searched, all our documents taken and more questions asked. I've got to hand it to Katarina on this one, she used her croatian language and struggled to understand and sort everything out. Then we hit a speed bump. We weren't sure if they were feeling us up for a bribe or were actually angry that we didn't have a "letter of consent" from Katarina's mother that allowed us to take the car for two weeks. As they stood there with our documents in their hands, the ukrainian winter breeze freezing us to death and their "less than satisfactory" look on their faces we wondered if we had money whethere sliding them a bribe would actually make things move faster. Fortunately what seemed like a senior official stepped in, took our documents and added Kats name to the border documents as "owner of the vehicle". Thank goodness. After a minute of standing around in the cold, making sure we could leave we jumped back in the car and continued through the checkpoint. Once we were out, we pulled over, took a deep breath and with sweaty palms I snapped this picture of the "welcome to Ukraine" sign.

We were in.

A quick stop to grab some snacks and a road map and a gas station and we were off to Lviv. At this point my opinion of Ukraine wasn't that great. The amount of stray dogs running around everywhere was concerning, especially when we saw a pack of dogs gang up and attack another dog right in front of the car. As we stopped in the town of Chop, we were surprised by the old car, horse drawn carriages and car eating potholes that greeted us. The drive to Lviv was 5 hours of driving through the Carpathian mountains in the darkness.

When it comes to driving manners, Ukrainians have none. The difference between extreme wealth and poverty is very evident especially once you leave any of the major cities. Expensive cars pass you like rockets as their owners don't care for road rules. Road rules are to be ignored in Ukraine as you can bribe any of the police officers you may run into along the way. Caught driving at 160 km/h? Toss the officer a 100 Hryvna bill and drive on! Driving defensively is mandatory as yahoos from all over are constantly passing everybody at high speed. We drove cautiously through the carpathian mountains at night as the road was stating to freeze and the occasional light snowflakes fell. Thankfully other than the massive potholes that bottomed out the suspension and scraped across the bottom of the car, it was a smooth drive into Lviv.

That was until we got to Lviv.

A Lviv road under construction.

The street of Lviv are made of small bricks. Probably laid 200 years ago, they don't seem fit for small cars to drive on. Never have I seen such uneven streets in a city. At this point every kilometer we seemed to bottom out the car suspension on the bumpy streets, crossing tram tracks that seemed to stick above the street by 6 inches and in potholes that seemingly swallowed the whole tire of the car until the frame hit ground. Fortunately we made it into city center, pulled the car onto the curb and found a parking spot. Finding the hostel was not an easy task as I managed to goof up the directions on my iphone and copied the wrong information. Fortunately Lviv is a very safe and pretty city. Even the police officers were friendly when we asked them for directions, pointing us to the proper street without asking us for a bribe! We made it to out hostel and spent a few nights at the "Kosmonaut". Full of old soviet relics including a machine gun on the wall, a space helmet and plenty of military memorabilia it was quite the character hostel! We crashed easily that night, ready for another few days in Lviv. We were officially in Ukraine and it felt GREAT!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Wagons East

So we packed up our belongings and decided to hoof it for Budapest on friday morning. Belisce was sunny and clear as we checked the oil and loaded the bags into the car. After corralling the crew into conducting an interview each before we left, we jumped into the car, set the GPS for Budapest and hit the road. It occurred to me at this point that we are incredibly spoiled in this day and age with all the technological advancements of the 21st century. Setting a GPS is still foreign for me but having it for use during a road trip is really a godsend especially when traveling to countries with signs spelled in cyrillic. With the GPS set we headed into Hungary. Entering an E.U. country from a non E.U. member is always an interesting experience. Fortunate for us all documents were in order and we hopped onto the fantastic hungarian highway to Budapest. I have fond memories of Budapest from a past visit to Hungary with my friend Eva back in 2007. I had never been to the city and was incredibly surprised by her offer to come and join her in the city. My memories are comprised of the following thoughts. Hungarian people are incredibly nice. We ate shitloads of amazing hungarian food. Hungarian people know how to riot and are good at it. Budapest is very reasonably priced.

Budapest March 2007

This time around, Budapest definitely did not disappoint. The opportunity to share this experience with my brothers was a once in a lifetime opportunity. We found a very nice hostel just outside the center of downtown and went out for an evening of hungarian goulash, fantastic beer and lots and lots of photos along the Budapest waterfront. Our first stop was a restaurant called "For Sale". Home of 1100 Forint litre bowls of goulash, this place is a must see when you visit Budapest. A cozy dark brick room welcomes you along with straw hay strewn about on the floor. A basket of peanuts on your table for you to enjoy... simply discard the shells on the floor. Somewhat reminded me of a tasteful version of the Pioneer Pub in Richmond. Then the Goulash. Litre bowls of it. Thank goodness we were sensible and ordered two bowls for four people, complete with three different types of chili powder. The hungarians love their spice... and I love hungarians!

Kat testing the chili.

Goulash Aftermath

After dinner was the start of the photo/video excursion. Which is probably where our groups opinions of how it went differ. When you're a photographer/camera man it's quite easy to stay warm. Your day is usually comprised of stopping to take photos of the group, interspliced with hundred meter sprints to catch up with the group. It's a great way to stay warm, but if you're trying to convince people to pose for a photo its a great way to piss off the group as they are slowly getting colder and more disguntled with time.

The Danube

The chain bridge roundabout.

I always told myself that if I returned to Budapest with an SLR digital camera, I would have a field day. You can ask Katarina, Miles or Emmett and I'm sure you'll get a different opinion but I certainly made a damn good effort to balance my subjects and desperately try to gather as many quality night shots as I possibly could at the same time. We made our way up to the Buda palace at the top of the hill and took some shots of the city. One of my favourite places to explore when I was there back in 2007 it was an experience that was extra special when shared with my brothers. Getting to show them around such a magical place at night was a real treat.

We made our way to "Simple" bar. Simple is a very cool place to say the least. It's similar to what you get if you took East Vancouver alternative lifestyle and mated it with eastern european socialism. A studio warehouse literally turned into six different bar rooms. Take something you found on the sidewalk and attach it to the wall. The place was a decoration in itself. Everything on the walls including plenty of advice. Cheap beer, good crowd and an amazing atmosphere. It was artists commune turned into a bar. Very very cool.

Kat pointing out some good advice.

The next morning was the big day. We woke up and enjoyed the free breakfast at the "Aboriginal Hostel". I must say after working at many hostels over time, this definitely had the best breakfast of any hostel I had been to. Waffles with chocolate, Museli and proper brewed coffee were the highlights. We packed our things and prepared for a 7 hour day of driving through Ukraine up to Lviv. We were optimistic as we drove through the beautiful hungarian countryside. The new highway was a delight with it's modern fuel stations, wide shoulders and 130km/h speed limits. Little did we know that Ukraine would be very very different.

Three things I did not expect.

- The underside of your car will bottom out against the ground. A lot.

- Passing other cars is a national sport in Ukraine.

- Expect the unexpected when driving outside of any Ukrainian town. Pack of dogs on the highway? Horse drawn carriage coming at you in an oncoming lane? A tractor pulling a wagon full of potatoes across four lanes of traffic? Yeah all normal in Ukraine.

But that's a story for next time.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The start of something big.

So over the last few days since leaving Dubrovnik I have been filming and documenting as much as I can. It has been a rewarding experience so far documenting our trip form Zagreb through to Serbia and back again. Yesterday We made a side trip to the towns of Vukovar and Ilok. We stopped by and checked out the vukovar "Ovcara" museum. A sad sad place where 261 people were massacred during the war. Not a very uplifting place but a vry important experience to fully understand croatian history and culture.

On top of seeing the sights and experiencing the lifestyle, I have also been shooting my ass off! So much so that I actually managed to kill my $1000 camera lens. Looks like I'll have to make a trip to Zagreb or Slovenia to get it fixed for the big Ukraine trip. It is such a massive pain in the ass because it is the only camera lens I have that has any zoom/range. My only other lens is a fixed 50mm prime lens so I NEED to get my other lens fixed so I have something to take to the Ukraine. Anyways aside from the lens incident, things have been going smoothly and I look forward to leaving for the Ukraine this weekend. If all goes well I will keep filming and should have some interesting footage to put together a nice little doc by the time I'm done. Anyways here's what I have so far, so give it a whirl and leave some comments if you dig it!

Untitled from Fraser Martyniuk on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

On the road... again

It has been an incredible month. Time has flown by as always but October seems to have been even worse than the rest. It was October 1st... then suddenly it was the 28th.

I was very melancholic while slowly dismantling the life I had previously lived for the prior six months. The house what was my home was being reduced to two backpacks full of random items. One full bag of computer and photo gear, one of clothing and real life stuffs. As I went through everything I had to decide what to store, pack or throw away. At the same time in Dubrovnik because the ex-pat community is so tight, I was also doing the rounds of "goodbyes" and "see you in Zagreb"s. A coffee here, return an item there, clean my room and suddenly the day was nearly over. The last few hours until 1 am were spent checking my baggage twice to make sure I didn't forget anything. I crashed around 1:30 only to wake up at 4:30 am to catch the 6:00 am bus to Zadar to meet Dave.

Its a strange feeling to walk out of a city for the last time. I was leaving behind something so familiar, a city I had lived in for six months. It's a strange feeling looking down and empty street and not knowing whether you will ever return to that place. With a heavy heart I walked out of town with my belongings on my back, but not before snapping one last shot of the "grad". I caught the bus to the station and boarded the eight hour bus to Zadar.

It's strange. Once my ass hit the seat on the bus, it was all familiar once again. That feeling of being on the road once again. Not to mention that all too familiar bus seat that feels like it's been "designed to be uncomfortable". My home for the next eight hours. Days earlier I had booked two beds for Dave and I at the "Drunken Monkey Hostel" in Zadar. Now I'm not one for party hostels, but according to hostelworld reviews this was the only hostel in Zadar that hadn't recently had any encounters with bed bugs. party hostel be damned, I was going to sleep bed bug free so I booked us two beds and prepped myself to see Dave again.

It's a funny thing seeing friends while abroad. There's quite a difference between "true friends" and "acquaintances". Acquaintances tend to lose contact and feel the geographical distance and time a friendship suffers while two people are apart. With "true friends" time and distance don't matter. It's just like old times when you finally do come together again. That is exactly how I felt when I finally met up with Dave in Zadar. It was literally like no time had passed since we last saw each other. Other than the obvious fact that we were both in Croatia, nothing had changed. Time to explore Croatia as friends.

I was pleasantly surprised by what Zadar had to offer. It is a small city with a population of around 80,000 residents, but in comparison to Dubrovnik it seemingly has a lot. Real grocery stores, western european shops and brand names, even an H&M store to buy reasonably prices winter wear. I was very impressed with the amount of local art and culture presented within the old city walls. The old city itself felt large than that of Dubrovnik with an emphasis on art. Zadar has a few local installations as attractions along it's beautiful riviera. The "sea organ", a stone waterfront with holes cut in the side to allow water to generate air pressure as the waves pass by is a definite highlight. Sitting on the waterfront not just watching the waves coming in, but hearing them as well was a total treat. You wouldn't really think it, but the waves do have a magical and hypnotizing sound to them that does actually sound musical. Right next to the sea organ is the "Sun Salutation" circle. A solar powered LED light exhibit that captures the light during the day and illuminates panels during the night while putting on a "jumbo-tron" like light show. I managed to snap plenty of night shots along the riva with a local tallship moored alongside.

In Zadar we happened to run into Andy Davidson, a friend of my brothers. Now it's a bit of a funny story but Andy actually gave my brother Miles a ride back from Greece on the back of his motorcycle. It may sounds simple, but it was far from it. Bad roads, crappy signage, crazy drivers and cold weather were some of the obstacles that confronted them. When they arrived in Dubrovnik Miles asked if Andy could spend some time at our place to get some much needed rest. What was supposed to be "a few days" turned into over a week... which was our pleasure as Andy turned out to be a stand up dude. About as good as they come. Miles had left to go meet Emmett in London but Andy had stuck around and hung out with us in Dubrovnik a few days longer... then rode his bike up to Zadar and managed to meet Dave and I at the Drunken Monkey Hostel. It's strange how easy it is to get along with other travelers... people who really know how to grab life by the balls and cherish every moment of being on the road. Andy is definitely one of those dudes.

Here's a picture of Andy and his ride.

How Andy, Miles, both their bags, fuel tanks and camping gear ever fit on there... I will never know.

Anyways we all had a blast in Zadar, meeting other fellow travelers, locals and for myself getting to experience a new part of the croatian coast. It's strange how once you spend a lot of time in Dubrovnik, you get used to the fact that you miss out on a whole shitload of other cool things out there. After spending a few days in Zadar, we decided it was time to part ways and head to Zagreb. Dave and I jumped on a bus while Andy once again saddled up and headed directly to Ljubljana. We boarded the bus in the warm adriatic sun. As we drove along the road to Zagreb we passed through a super long tunnel. I swear it must have taken us 10-15 minutes to drive through! Once we passed through the other side, it was cloudy and foggy and cold. A sign of the weather to come. We had officially left the dalmatian coast behind for cool weather, cloudy skies and real winter. What was even better was that Dave was sleepingmost of the time... so when he passed out, it was sunny and warm. When he woke up the sun was gone and it was hovering about 5 celcius. Not anybody's favourite way to wake up...

Anyways we arrived in Zagreb... met up with my friend Booboo and finally laid our heads to rest. It was a good trip so far and as we would find in the coming days, familiar places were all about to get a bit more familiar...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tofino Family Getaway (one year later)

So I was arranging all the files and footage on my computer the other day and realized I had over 100 gigabytes of footage on my computer that I had never really finished editing. Last year my family and I rented a minivan and decided to head out to Tofino for a weekend to reconnect and get back to nature. It was a fantastic trip and I was even able to drag both my brothers out surfing for a bit. Fortunately I also managed to drag along my go pro camera and capture all of the action as well! Anyways I apologize to my parents for taking so long, but I finally managed to find the time to edit it all up and I think it turned out nicely!

Song: "Bourgeois Shangi-La" by "Miss Li"

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Day Winter Finally Caught Up With Dubrovnik...

So over the last two months, I've got to say I've had relatively little to complain about weather wise. On my igoogle homepage, I've installed side by side webcam apps so I can simultaneously watch Vancouver and Dubrovnik weather. Needless to say in comparison Vancouver has got the shitty end of the weather stick this season with it's few precious weeks of summer. Aside from the occasional hour long shower, Dubrovnik hasn't really seen rain since May. With temperatures hovering in the 25 to 30C mark consistently for the last five months, my mixed feelings of leaving Vancouver have been reinforced by the warm water, sunny days and beautiful temperatures.

There was a lot of talk the other day about the weather as it seemed summer was really about to come to an end. Temperatures were forecast to drop 15 degrees, snow was forecast in Zagreb and the locals were making a last ditch effort to solidify their sesonal tan by spending the last sunny hours on a beach. I myself joined in on the action with some last minute snorkeling and a last attempt to spot an octopus in it's natural habitat. I never saw the octopus, but I did manage to find an eel... a very colourful yellow and grey one which I stalked for many minutes while it hit between some rocks. As it turns out, 24 hours later, summer really would be over in spectacular fashion.

The following day was a mixture of sun and cloud when I woke up. There was a nice onshore breeze but you could tell something was different. Over the last week I have been house sitting at Jon and Sanja's house, looking after the dog and taking care of the Launderette. As I woke up and walked out onto their beautiful balcony, I looked out on the horizon and had to do a double take. As I wiped the sleep from my eyes, I couldn't believe what I was looking at. Off in the distance was a TORNADO! Well to be perfectly honest, when it's on the water it is a "water spout" but it really was a full on cyclone whipping up the water and sucking it up a thousand feet into the clouds. I watched as it started off in the distance, but was slowly coming towards shore in my exact direction! Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me so I was only able to snap some lousy quality iphone photos.

I can only imagine what the captain of that cruise ship was thinking as the water spout was coming closer and closer to the ship. There's no point raising the anchor cause it means you are now at the mercy of the winds, you can't run away as it would take too long... you can only really sit there and pray that it doesn't bowl you over, suck up all your passengers and destroy the ship. Luckily for him, as the spout came closer to land it also dissipated in strength and eventually made contact with land and vanished. Life in Dubrovnik returned to normal.

Then later in the evening the clouds rolled in, the air became sour with ozone and you could feel the electricity in the atmosphere. I had to make a serious attempt to run for the launderette, close it up just in the nick of time and then run home on the scooter to close up the windows and shutter just as the storm hit. Wind, sideways rain and massive lightning bolts illuminated the sky. Once the initial rain subsided I was able to duck out on the balcony with my tripod and snap this photo of lightning hitting behind Lokrum Island.

Thankfully the storm was over just as quickly as it had arrived leaving behind clean fresh air and a much cooler temperature. Summer was officially over. Away with the flip flops, shorts and t-shirts and time for winter jackets, jeans and gloves. Ugh. At least it will be a good way to get to the temperatures in the Ukraine...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Thousand Islands.

So back in May when I had just returned to Croatia, I received a call from my longtime sailing friend Bastian who mentioned an opportunity to go sailing in Croatia with the Cooper Boating crew. When you travel, plans tend to change, people get busy, have stuff to do and arrangements tend to fall through. I was pleasantly surprised when earlier in September I got a confirmation call that the sailing trip was on, and there was extra space on the boat. Being a bit strapped for cash, Bastian was kind enough to invite me along as long as I hauled my weight on board in return. Fortunately there was also extra space on board, so I was able to bring my brother Miles along for the trip as well. It would definitely be a new experience for myself, but it would even cooler to share the memory of trying something new with Miles. Sailing in Croatia. Land of a thousand islands. Pearl of the Adriatic.

I spent the last few days before the trip planning our way up the coast, transportation to Trogir and a way back at the end of the week. Thankfully my boss Jon was awesome enough to cut me some slack and come in a bit earlier to replace me so I could leave town a few hours earlier. That worked out great, the only other problem we had was that once we arrived in Split by bus, we would have to catch another connection out to Trogir harbour, which didn't run late at night. Huge thanks go out to my friend Diana, who was kind enough to drive us out to Trogir in exchange for a nice dinner out. I was also excited that Miles got to meet Diana and see what kind of great people Croatia has. As we drove out to Trogir, Diana told us about all the times she had been in a fender bender since I had last seen her in Dubrovnik three months earlier. She was pushing the limits but managed to avoid losing her job seeing as her car was provided by her employer (the number is five accidents in three months). Needless to say we made it to Trogir in one piece, albeit a bit nervous and met up with Bastian and his friend Isabellina. We sat around, had a drink, took in all the beautiful harbour had to offer. Due to rough weather we had to stay in Trogir harbour for two nights. Both nights I managed to sleep in the hammock up on deck which was an amazing experience. By day we went exploring and shipping at the local markets. It's strange how in this part of the world "buying local" isn't anything new. In fact for the most part they never stopped. Organic carrots, apples and my favourite, mandarin oranges were all bought in the local market. Lets also not forget a bottle of local "Travarica" that Miles found, a local Croatian herbal brandy which was consumed by all on the trip.

During the second night in Trogir harbour, we were slammed by a squall at about 9:30 pm. Initially Bastian and I had wandered into town to take photographs. As we walked into Trogir town we noticed that a storm front was steadily approaching. Not being more than 15 minutes from the boat we weren't worried about it. We took shots of the town, enjoying the local cafe culture and trying to snap as many discreet pictures of the locals as we could sneak. As we snapped away we noticed the storm getting closer and closer. I managed to snap a few pretty cool pictures of the storm as it approached. On average I would say there was a lightning strike every three seconds. It was a storm that was packing a heck of a punch. As we felt the air go still, and the hairs stand on the back of our necks, we decided to make a run for the marina. As we sprinted over the Trogir bridge back to the right side of the channel, the wind picked up significantly. What Bastian and I thought was a rain cloud aproaching at breakneck speed was actually a dust storm from the local harbour howling our way. We managed to make it back to the boat in the nick of time as the marina got hammered by the squall. Three foot waves started to form and batter the boats against the docks. Foresails proceeded to unfurl and flog themselves to death in the heavy winds. Our boat fortunately was well secured as we fired our motors up and left the boats in gear to help keep them from bashing into dock finger. During the early stages of the storm I managed to record this video.

Needless to say I don't think many people had seen anything quite like that before. A quiet idyllic marina turned into complete mayhem in an instant. Fortunately thanks to quick thinking from fellow sailors we managed to save a few boats from damage. Ripped power boxes, a shredded jib and a damaged pontoon of a catamaran. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but I know a few sailors were shaken. Other than the drama from the second night, the trip was otherwise a relaxing and warm vacation. Days were spent sailing in great winds, or motoring in the sunshine. We anchored out for lunch a few times, eating european style with a platter of cheeses and meats. Snorkelling until we were tired, napping until we were awake and traveling until we were reunited with the group. The further away from Split we went, the cleaner the water seemed to get with visibility improving and reaching the 100 meter mark. Fantastic snorkelling was experience, although I have still not managed to see the ever elusive octopus which is supposed to rule the area. We saw some amazing sunsets which I also managed to snap a few pictures of.

To earn my keep aboard, I was Bastian's "right hand sailor" always manning the main sheet and other lines. I also hauled my weight by being primary cook on board. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners were handled by yours truly. Meat and cheese platters, curries, omlettes etc... were all prepared on the tiny two burner stove in the galley. Here is one of our meals. Not too bad considering it came out of a boat galley! In the end I think Bastian was happy with my performance as a crew member.

So the rule of thumb goes that the longer your boat, the faster it's top speed will be. For some reason in Croatia this is not the case, as our tiny 32 foot "Dinghy" (compared to the other 43 footers) managed to consistently lead the pack and give all the other sailors a good run for their money. Plenty of fun was had on my last day as we raced from Stari Grad, Hvar to the small marina of Palmizana. I managed to snap some pretty cool photos along the way. There are some advantages about leading the pack!

Anyways on the last day, Bastian was awesome enough to drop me off in the town of "Hvar" where I caught a high speed catamaran to Split. A five and a half hour bus ride later on a double decker bus and I was back in Dubrovnik ready to work again on Saturday day... which is where I am writing this to you now! So if somebody asked me what my new favourite activity to do in Croatia is... my new answer is SAILING! The islands are stunning, the views amazing, the water clear and blue and the weather fantastic. And let's not forget the Bijela Kava with a shot of travarica.

Until the next adventure...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

When Miles came to visit (along with everybody else)

So it seems that I am best at posting blogs with large amounts of time between entries. That's mostly due to the fact that I am out doing awesome shit, and seriously lack time and patience to write about it. Luckily I take a boatload of pictures, so I can always bring you up to speed quickly about the time that you may have missed.

So where to begin? Well it all started roughly on the 17th of August, when Miles, Christine and Lisa all happened to arrive on the same day, about two hours apart. Miles and Christine had just finished a family reunion trip in England, and fancied a visit. Lisa had been paying close attention to my blog and was obviously enthralled by my fancy pictures and enthusiastic writing and had decided to blow all her remaining vacation time to come visit me in Croatia.

What I neglected to mention was that Kim and her friend Joy had also visited and stayed for two weeks on my couch. To be honest, for the most part I have had somebody on my couch almost solidly since mid june. Lucy(6 weeks), Sarah (10 days), Suzanne (6 days), Kim and Joy (two weeks), Lisa (Three weeks), Me (five days, while Miles and Christine had my bedroom), and have finally reduced the number of random travelers to just my brother. Now you'd think that one would potentially go "Bat shit crazy" from such large numbers of people in the house, but it actually works out very nicely. When I cook up large curry dinners for the hostel (cooked at home), I never seem to have a shortage of hands to help me bring food and supplies up for dinner.

Not to mention the fact that all of these people have been close friends, or people that I had grown closer to during that time. Make a few new friends, see some old ones, have a sibling or two come visit. It's been a hell of a treat to get to show dear friends and family around Croatia. Not just show them Croatia, but show them MY CROATIA! Ranting a car and driving through the Peljesac peninsula, tasting wine and swimming along the way. Driving up to the mountains to enjoy a nice fresh locally grown meal in Konavle, hopping in kayaks and going to explore caves, bombed out hotels and hidden spots in the city of Dubrovnik.

After years of having people put up with old man Fraser telling stories like a senile nostalgic traveler, I am finally getting some glory by showing them that I didn't make that shit up... they are all real places full of real adventures to be shared.

Anyways it has been fantastic having friends and family visit the last little while. Even acquaintances have provided a unique experience, just like the last few days when Alanna's sister Laura and her friend Sara came to visit. It's strange how you can get to know somebody you've never met, but had an amazing amount of things in common with, halfway around the world. I figure showing people a good time is something like "travelers karma". When I end up in another town somewhere random in the world, the amazing people will come out of the woodwork and show me the unique amazing things of the region.

Speaking of random, I met up with a fellow traveler I met five years ago at Fresh Travelers Bar. Now it was a random meeting to begin with. His name is Sergei and he's a Kazakh/Russian fellow who was living in London. Interesting guy to talk to back then, ironically enough he came back to Dubrovnik and sought me out. I went out for a drink with him yesterday where he introduced me to his recently married wife Olga. By chance Olga happens to be from the Ukraine... and not just the Ukraine, but also the region that my ukrainian heritage is from. We spent the better part of the next hour and a half talking about ukrainian life, life in Bukovina, the making of kutia (a traditional ukrainian dish we would make at christmas), the best things to do and see in the country and some good insight for north american travelers. The more time I spend on the road, the more it makes sense that I need to return to the Ukraine and see it for my own eyes. Experiences like this seem to solidify the fact that I do in fact need to start planning and executing a trip there this winter. Everything is slowly falling right into place.

Anyways it is 1:30 am, I need to be up at 7 am to work at the hostel but wanted to avoid leaving you all hanging so I decided to bang out this blog. Here's a few more pictures from the month to tie you over until next time! Safe journeys in the meantime, and to anyone else in the area, don't hesitate to drop by for a visit!