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...