Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

And It's 2008!

The year 2008 started off auspiciously with with a visit from old bud Matt Bresler. We did dinner at Iguana followed by a late evening at The Stage pub. A fairly quiet Saturday at For Sale pub and restaurant, then Sunday brunch at the Corinthia hotel. My jeans continue to shrink.
The Viking Club had its first 2008 meeting on January 10. I renewed my Britannia Club membership again this year, even though the old club, which has been a continuing source of fun and activity in the past, has gone seriously downhill as of late. Hope it will pick up.
Also got my shots and pills for Gambia, which should protect me against anything short of being eaten by a crocodile. I had no idea the shots and visa and other things would be so expensive. Of course, I get reimbursed for them by the Hotel, but still… The shots I had to get, for yellow fever, hepatitis A and meningitis, cost about $142 US. Then I had to get 24 malaria pills, which cost $124 US, more than $5 per pill! My visa cost about $112. Getting expensive for the hotel.
I had some specialized training for my new job during the week of January 13-18, conducted by the hotel’s Director of Talent and Development – today’s euphemism for Personnel or Human Resources. The training consisted of a week’s worth of going through the hotel area by area and having her point out to me all of the things I should be looking for when I do my reviews. And they are legion! We discussed the checklists to be used in the Mystery Shopper Integrity Checks and in the detailed, very expanded Quality Audits. When my mentor left I put in for and received my visa for Gambia. I confirmed my B&B reservations in London for the rugby match over the weekend of January 31 through February 3. Rest? Who needs it?
Suddenly it was Robert Burns’ time again. Yep, January 25 is the date of the great Scottish bard’s birth, celebrated the world over by Scotsmen near and far. So, on the evening of January 26, I attended my first BIG annual Robert Burns Dinner and Dance at the Corinthia Hotel in Budapest. (For details about the traditional Burns supper itself, see Newsletter 41). Normally I don’t get to go to this one, as it’s a charity event costing nearly $150 US per head to attend. This year, however, my good friend and organizer of the event, Stuart McAlister, wanted to do something different with the Toast to the Lassies and their Response to the Laddies.
He asked me if I could write a new set of humorous lyrics to the song That’s All I Ask of You, from Phantom of the Opera, which would incorporate both toasts. So one cold and blustery winter weekend I sat down in front of my new Laptop PC, donned my best lyric-writing costume of old, grey Windjammer shorts and Corfu tank-top, opened my bottle of 12-year-old Bushmill’s whisky, and got to work. So I got to attend the Dinner for free, as Stuart’s guest. The crowd was properly appreciative, as Stuart and one of his employees sang the toast at the supper. As Lyricist to the Stars, I was duly honored.
The following Thursday, January 31st, it was off to London for the England vs. Wales live international Six Nations rugby match at Twickenham Stadium. As long as I’ve been a rugby fan, I’ve never seen a live international match, so this was to be a first for me. And, according to all of my English rugby fan friends, Twickenham is the place to watch English rugby. After a really fun and expensive runaround with British Rail, during which I caught the wrong train and had to pay extra to get off, I found my way to the suburb of Twickenham. I finally found my B&B, dumped my bag and headed out to find a beer with my name on it, which I really needed by that time. I figured that, since every sports stadium in the world has pubs and bars surrounding it, I would find the same at Twickenham. Wrong. After a too-long walk the wrong way, I trudged back past the B&B and into town and finally found some friendly pubs and restaurants. I had my Guinness and Shepherd’s Pie at the Cabbage Patch pub, and finally crashed around 10 PM. It had been a teeth-gnashing day.
The next day, Friday, I spent walking all over Twickenham and environs. I had a nice lunch at The Fox, Twickenham’s oldest pub, where I a monster burger and the pub’s special ”strong dark ale,” went down just fine. I did the Happy Hour at several pubs: The Eel Pie, The Grand Union and the William Webb Ellis, where I also had a nice dinner of British Beef and Abbot Pie. The menu at this well-appointed pub and restaurant contained some wonderful information for diners and drinkers, things like:

”Weatherspoon is committed to using range-free eggs and has received a Good Egg award;

Our Lincolnshire sausage won the 2006 gold award from the British Pig Executive; and

Our cod is sourced from recognized, sustainable fisheries.”

Saturday morning I met fellow rugby fans Mike and Ida Apted and Jonathan Rees at the Up n’ Under pub. We had a drink there and walked to the stadium, about 15-20 minutes away. We stopped on the way to ”eat street,” picking up a really good British Beef baguette and some freshly-made donuts (yep, the enterprising salesmen had an actual donut-making machine with oil and dough and everything). Twickenham Rugby Stadium is wonderfully cozy for all that it seats 80,000 people. Our seats were about 20 rows up from the field, at the east goal line. We settle down with our beer and watched England wipe out Wales during the first half, 16-6, then watched Wales annihilate England during the second half to a final score of 26-19. A slaughter, and the first time Wales has beaten England at home in 20 years.
We allowed ourselves to be hustled by the crowd of 80,000 fans back into town for dinner at Pincho’s Mediterranean restaurant, which offered tapas and other goodies. I had a huge plate of seafood paella, which was heavenly.
Sunday morning I was up at 7 AM and caught all of my trains to Gatwick Airport. Got back to Budapest and spent the next few days packing and ironing and washing and teaching a couple of classes. I got a call from old friend Sue Wilson, former Budapest resident now living in the Netherlands, before I left on my trip. She was in town for a conference and hoped we could get
The following night old bud Mark Wills was in town on a side trip from Paris, and The Stage rocked under our combined karaoke efforts until the wee hours. I had to drag myself to the airport the next day to catch my flight to Gambia.
I left Budapest midday on Saturday, February 9 to Lisbon, then on to Dakar, where I had a lovely six-hour layover from 2 AM until 8 AM. Even if I had had a visa for Dakar, there probably wasn’t much to do in the middle of the night. And to make things even more pleasant, the huge Check-in Hall at the Dakar airport didn’t have any chairs or benches for the weary traveler. Lovely. Anyway, I finally got to Banjul, Gambia (or, technically, The Gambia) at around 8:30 in the morning of February 10th.
I was guided to a falling-apart taxi by a local hustler who seemed to think I should pay him for walking me out of the airport and showing me a taxi. He was quickly disabused. However, I began to rethink my penury when the taxi refused to start and several of the driver’s buddies had to push him to kick-start the engine. Several times. I should have realized there might be a problem when I noticed the ignition switch didn’t have a key in it; rather, just a couple of bare wires sticking out of it, which the driver touched together to try and start his lovely machine. Not an auspicious beginning.
Anyway, I finally got to the hotel, checked in and took a five-minute walk to a small outdoor restaurant called Billy’s, in the shadow of Arch 22, a major Banjul monument. Billy himself greeted me and we immediately became best friends for life. Actually, he was a really nice, really black Gambian, whose fish and chips were excellent. And the local beer, Julbrew, served nice and cold, was a real treat, at 4.7% alcohol!
I won’t bore you with the lazy days I spent relaxing around the pool or on the beach. Nor will I get into detail about my Mystery Shopper program. Let’s just say I had a good time in West Africa. I ate most of my lunches and dinners at either Billy’s or Michel’s, another nearby restaurant specializing in seafood. The beer was good and cold there also, and they served up the best seafood paella I have ever had anywhere. The town of Banjul was only a ten-minute walk from my beachfront hotel, so I walked into town several times to see what was happening. The answer was, not much.
There is a busy, dirty, smelly, wonderful central market, with food and raw fish and flies and bees and fruit and arts and crafts, which I visited for my gifts and souvenirs. Each time I left the hotel on foot I was tracked by the local “bumsters,” hustlers who try to accompany you to places you might not really want to go and then try to extort money for their “services.” They usually throw in the new baby scam, or the sick mother. Not much luck with a survivor of the Egyptian souks.
Of course, the taxis would be glad to take you to town for about 2.50 pounds, or $5 US. Not bad for a two-minute drive. There is absolutely no nightlife around the hotel, which tries to compensate by having a live band every evening on their poolside stage. These bands were advertised as playing different types of music, such as 80s, 70s, Reggae, African, etc. After a few nights listening to them, however, it became obvious the band merely played the same songs to different beats. I really hope it will be many years before I have to hear “Give Me Hope, Joanna” again.
I did take a couple of excursions to the surrounding countryside. The Banjul Highlights tour included the local hospital and School for the Blind, which were just two higher-level Bumsters. A visit to the Julbrew Brewery was okay, however, and the Crocodile Pool was pretty cool. I even got to pet Charley, an old croc featured on a BBC documentary some time ago.
I did a nighttime tour of the Makasutu area, which translates as Holy Forest. Shared a stroll through the forest with a troop of baboons, visited a 75-year-old Marabou (fortune teller, or JuJu Man), who told me I’d live a long time if I gave a kola nut to an old beggar. Not one to leave things to chance, I did. After dinner we watched the native dancers strut their stuff around the bonfire. Man, those girls can move! Talk about your flying feet. They were obviously well-practiced at stirring up their men and sending them off to fight and make babies.
My last day there was the Gambian Independence Day. I walked into town to see what was up. Other than the crowds and military parades and soldiers in their jeeps with hands on their machine guns, there wasn’t a whole lot to it. I was glad to get back on the plane with my gifts and suntan and good wishes from the Marabou Man and a seafood paella settling nicely in my stomach. Another eight-hour layover in Dakar, then home to the Budapest winter, which was surprisingly mild when I arrived.
So, that’s it for now. More oral surgery the last week of February, will spend the next week recovering and getting ready for my trip to Lisbon in March. Hope everyone is well and safe and happy. Watch this space for more updates as the adventure continues…..