Monthly Archives: October 2012

Trail Magic

Trail magic seems much more magical when traveling alone. Since you have only yourself to entertain, serendipitous experiences are that much more delightful. And since you have only yourself to look out for, when things work out against whatever odds, you feel that much more triumphant.

I am speaking from my recent experience solo-journeying around Hungary. While it was not my first solitary trip, it was certainly the longest and my first in a country where I don’t know the language. Granted, Hungary is a developed country, so I wasn’t really “roughing it” on my own. But still.

The trip was an all-around success, and I enjoyed the opportunity to do whatever I wanted and to stick to, or break, my own agenda. However, of course, no trip goes perfectly, and I ran into a few road bumps…until trail magic saved the day.

First, my best meal of the trip magically appeared.

Hungary is not exactly renowned for its cuisine. Although I ate a couple tasty meals of wild boar goulash, Hungary doesn’t rank high on my list of international dining experiences. But one meal really made my day.

I had been wandering around Budapest all morning, and by lunch had walked myself into an intense hunger. I happened to be on one of Pest’s pedestrian streets, which is lined with restaurants. Unfortunately, this street also happened to be a tourist trap. All the restaurants lauded their traditional goulashes, but at tourist prices (i.e., high). While only the third day of my trip, I was already weary of the tourist trap, so after a few blocks and no appealing option in sight, I took a desperate, random turn off the street in hopes of finding something off the beaten path. As I continued a couple blocks more, my hunger and desperation only grew.

Then, as though the universe understood, there it was: The Veggy Corner. Perfect. I was craving a vegetarian meal, and there were no tourists in sight. When I entered the restaurant, my eyes lit up brighter–it was an Indian food buffet run by what seemed to be Budapest’s “crunchy” crowd (my kind of people), and it was cheap! Best of all, the food did not disappoint; it was hands-down my best meal in Hungary. (I later found out the restaurant’s owners are Hare Krishnas, which made me wonder if there really was a spiritual force drawing me to it.)

Second, I magically found some drinking buddies.

I took a day trip to a town called Eger, which is known for its Valley of the Beautiful Women, a cluster of wine cellars on its outskirts that sell wine from the region (Hungary is a wine country). Upon arriving in Eger that morning, I met a trio of young Israeli women who had also come for the day. While we found our way from the train station to the city center together, I decided to part from them to wander around alone before heading to the Valley, with the mutually tentative suggestion we meet up there later.

Fast forward to later, I was sipping my first glass of red wine and the women found me. I thought to myself, “Oh good, now I have drinking buddies and I won’t look suspiciously like an alcoholic drinking my way through the cellars alone.” Personal dilemma averted. Thank you trail magic.

My third magical occasion happened in Sopron, a small town at Hungary’s border with Austria that touts a beautifully preserved (albeit a bit desolate) medieval city center. (Amusingly, most of the town’s visitors are Austrians who come for cheap dental work.) It was my last day of the trip, and not only was I a bit trail-weary, the day was dampened by a cold autumn rain. I had planned to just walk about for the day, but the weather rendered that activity unenjoyable. As I meandered the cobbled streets, slowly getting drenched by the drizzle, I passed a sign for an art exhibition. And from what I could tell (it was in Hungarian), it was free. An excellent excuse to get out of the rain, I thought.

The exhibition was indeed free, and the art, paintings and sculptures by local artists, was exquisite (at least, according to my unrefined taste). If I were richer, I would have seriously considered buying a couple of the paintings. While I am no art nut, the exhibition was one of my more enjoyable gallery experiences…although the weather and serendipity of the find may have sweetened it a bit.

Finally, my most magical experience was my successful attempt to ride a horse in Hungary. My Lonely Planet led me to believe Hungarians are horse-crazy people. While horses didn’t seem to be as salient in the Hungarian psyche as the book made them out to be, as a horse-crazy person myself, I had firmly decided I wanted to ride during my trip. (My AirBnB hostess in Budapest suspected Hungary has the horse crazy reputation because of the crazy horsemanship skills of their Magyar ancestors).

The beginning of my horse-riding adventure proved to be adventurous indeed, and had I not been so determined, I might have abandoned the endeavor.

Upon arriving in Sopron, I immediately made my way to the tourist office for information about where I could ride. At first, the woman working there had no idea (despite Lonely Planet‘s assurance the tourist office would know). But gradually, ideas came to her, and she sent me off with a few brochures…all in Hungarian.

After checking into my pension, I recruited the help of the guy at reception. While the task seemed to cause him a little stress (it was possible this was because we could only communicate in German, a second language for us both), he successfully booked me a ride at a farm about six kilometers outside of town. I would have to navigate the bus system to get there. But he meticulously gave me all the details I would need, and with a heart full of hope and trust in the universe, I set out to ride.

Unfortunately I chose to ride the bus at the time when all the high school students were going home from school. It was interesting to observe the behavior of Hungarian teenagers (it’s much like that of American ones), but riding a bus filled to the brim with them was not particularly enjoyable. And as the aisle grew more crowded with subsequent stops, a large and very smelly man was pushed my way and stood right over me. I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into.

Once I arrived at my stop, the bus driver vaguely pointed me in the right direction of the farm, and I warily proceeded onward. I found my way to something that resembled a farm and asked whomever I could find (by pointing to the name of the farm on a piece of scrap paper) if I was in the right place. It turned out the farm was actually part of some sort of resort where people go to get plastic surgery.

Having confirmed I was in the right place, I just needed to figure out who I had to meet. This took me another ten minutes and required asking five different resort employees, until I found one that led me to where I had to go. I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the universe–I made it.

And my perseverance was rewarded. I had exactly the riding experience I was hoping for. While my horse and I had a bit of a rocky start, as I was re-assimilating to being in the saddle, and she was assimilating to my rusty horsemanship, we ended up connecting and had a lovely ride together. She was a very alert and curious horse, turning her head left and right throughout the ride to check out what was going on around us. A curious creature myself, I appreciated this about her. My guide, a short man who spoke no English and very little German, seemed to be the stern, but gentle type. I quietly delighted when he lit and smoked two cigarettes during our two hour ride (not because I like smoking, but because I found it amusing).

And then there was the landscape. We rode through rolling fields, vineyards and autumn forests. It was exactly the natural experience I had been craving since arriving in Hungary (thus far, my trip had been an entirely urban adventure). It was an unforgettable, trail-magical experience.

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Survivor: Oktoberfest, episode 3 (the final one)

While the Oktoberfest dust has finally settled (although the fest complex is still under deconstruction), I still feel compelled to finish this trilogy. In this episode, I will recant bits of my experience inside the beer tents…where the party really happens.

Munich’s six major breweries host fourteen beer tents. They may call them “tents,” but tents they are not. Most of the de-constructable wooden structures are made to look like centuries-old Alpine chalets (their appearances belie how quickly they were constructed), and some look more like sports arenas. Regardless, all are huge with capacities in the thousands. Here’s a handy guide to the tents.

Beer tent example. Image by DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons

The construction for this beer village began (from what I can recall) back in July (though it might have been June). It was fascinating to watch the village grow and evolve over those months. Each time I passed by Theresienwiese, something new had popped up–a roller coaster here, a beer tent there. I am sure a photo time lapse of the Wiesn’s construction exists somewhere out there, but I am too lazy to look for one.

If the walls of the tents could talk, I can only imagine the tomes of stories they could tell.

I ended up going to Oktoberfest four times over its 16 days, and I got to experience the three different faces of its party: morning, afternoon, and night.

I will say the morning, perhaps the more authentic of the experiences, was my favorite. The crowd was much sparser and more civilized. Most “early” morning festers go to eat the traditional Bavarian breakfast: Weisswurst, Breze, und Bier (white sausages, pretzel, and beer). I appreciated how accepted it was to drink a liter of beer before noon.

A tamer time inside a beer tent. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The rowdiness starts to rise with the afternoon shift. Then, each tent’s band begins their long day of playing their shared repertoire of Bavarian oompapa, traditional Oktoberfest tunes, and pop songs you typically hear either on the dance floor at American weddings or on 80s and 90s radio stations. Needless to say, the music gets better the more you drink.

The afternoon is also when the crowds begin to really pour in. Since you are only guaranteed a seat if you have a ticket (which you or your company must have purchased months in advance), it can be a struggle to either nab a table or get in the door. On the busiest days, mobs of people have to wait their turn outside to join the fun inside. I have heard if you are female and are wearing a “well-fitting” Dirndl, it is much easier to convince the bouncers to let you in. Typical.

Inside, the beer flows freely, dissolving inhibitions and lubricating singing voices. As more beer flows, people begin standing (sometimes precariously) on the benches–sitting becomes a silly idea, not that you would really want to sit on the (by then) beer drenched and muddied benches anyway. By the night shift, many of the tents become a joyous riot.

A rowdier moment inside a tent. Image by Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons.

On the only night I experienced the late shift, my friends and I entered our first tent completely sober, and it was quite a shock to witness the tent’s contents in a clear state of mind. The air was heavy with body heat. The mass of people made it nearly impossible to move. People were dancing in the isles and attempting to dance on the benches, all the while singing at the top of their lungs. Fortunately it didn’t take us too long to find empty benches, although our waiter herded us quite gruffly onto them–it was clear he knew how to handle drunk people, but was probably sick of it.

As I sipped my first Mass, I couldn’t help but just stare in (somewhat troubled) awe at the spectacle of humanity around me. Really, I don’t think I quite have the words to describe it accurately. A fight nearly broke out at a table near us, and all I could think was what a chaotic mess that could cause (fortunately the fight fizzled quickly). At the table behind us, a poor inebriated soul sat with his head on the table, sleeping, while his buddies all danced and sang around him. I tried to drown my rising concern for human dignity with my beer.

But by the second tent and second Mass, the night became much more fun. Suddenly the songs became much more enjoyable, it was way funnier to watch the stupidly drunk people do their stupidly drunk things, and it really did seem silly to be sitting on the bench when you could be standing and singing with everyone else.

So, in the end, I survived Oktoberfest. And it really was as they said: you can’t survive, or enjoy, Oktoberfest without drinking beer. Well, I can check that one off my bucket list. “Ein Prosit” to that.

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Surivor: Oktoberfest, episode 2

The Wiesn outside the beer tents is quite a spectacle. Curiosity led me to take a stroll (sober) around it on one of Oktoberfest’s traditionally busiest days (the second Saturday) to get a better big-picture view of the event. Drizzle dampened the day, but certainly not the fest-goers spirits. By the time I had arrived, around 1pm, the drunken revelry was ripe.

I think when King Ludwig I first declared Oktoberfest, he had no idea what it would become. While it began as a party to  celebrate his marriage to Princess Therese and thereafter evolved into an annual fest around a horse race, the end of the race tradition in 1960 catapulted the event into the display of commercialism and debauchery it is today.

Oktoberfest circa 1900 looked quite innocent.

Oktoberfest now is really just a huge carnival that can easily overload your senses. It’s not only its highly alcoholic beer that can make you dizzy, but so could its flashy carnival rides with names such as Top Spin, Techno Power, and Flip Fly. Blaring music accompanies and keeps tempo with each ride; e.g., “Will you be my girl” was the tune for an older, more traditional ride involving swinging pirate ships, while techno music powered the nerves of those on the wilder rides.

A birds-eye view of Oktoberfest now. Image by Mummelgrummel

People’s intoxicated reflexes and aim are tested at carnival games–most of which seemed to be some form of “shoot the [insert object].” Vendors try to lure your gaze with ueber-kitsch–from Lebkuchenherzen (inedible, but colorfully decorated heart-shaped cookies) to Bierkruege (inaccurately called Biersteins by Americans), stuffed Bavarian cows to “I survived Oktoberfest” t-shirts–which I imagine seem more enticing the drunker you are. And the smells of roasted nuts and sausage hang in the air, teasing you into a case of the munchies, whether drunk or sober (the smells coaxed me into buying a chocolate-covered banana, which was unfortunately not as tasty as I’d hoped).

Lebkuchenherzen. But don’t eat them. Image by Rado Bahna

Then there are the random, ad-hoc “side shows” that naturally occur in a crowd of drunk people. I watched one man try to unsuccessfully lug his incredibly intoxicated and rather rotund friend, who was slumped in a stupor on the ground, to his feet. An ambulance parted the crowd, and one jovial chap tried to impress his friends by hitching a ride on the back of it. A constant crowd hovers around a ride that entails burly men pulling fest-goers up a conveyer belt, so they can ride a mat down a large slide. The audience is most amused by the cocky male fest-goers who don’t think they need any help getting on the conveyer belt–more often than not, they really did need the help.

Needless to say, after about 45 minutes, my senses were sufficiently over-loaded and I needed to abandon the Wiesn quickly. Once again, the warnings were right–it’s really only fun if you’re drunk (or under the age of 12 and too captivated by the shininess of your surroundings to care).

In the next, and last, episode of Survivor: Oktoberfest, I describe the experience of the beer tents.

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