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Friday, 25 January 2013

That one collectible...

Every traveler that I run into seems to have some sort of collectible they like to pick up in every city or every country. I have met people who collect city magnets, sports jerseys, t-shirts, and even spoons. Sometimes it is not even an item, just something they try to do in each country. The most popular one is trying to get a passport stamp in every country they have traveled to. The somewhat new European Union borderless traveling has made this a lot harder to obtain passport stamps. The reason being you only get stamped when you enter a country from outside the Schengen  Zone. Once in the Schengen Zone you will not get any stamps until you leave and enter again. The Schengen Zone = Most of Western Europe (not the UK or Switzerland)

Another collectible that seems to be popular is putting country flag patches on your backpack. I have a slightly mixed opinion on these. It is a pretty good talking point when traveling to show which countries you have lived in or where you are from. But personally while traveling I try to blend in a little bit, even though I know I stick out either way. I have noticed a ton of Canadians sport the maple leaf flag on their backpacks...I've heard it is so they don't get confused for us neighbors to the South. Either way, it is nice to be prideful of your home country.

So what do I collect?

Shot glasses from each country. I have no clue how it started, but it turned out to be something I bought in every country. Sort of an addiction.  The past trip I was on I had 15+ shotglasses in my back pack, I really wish I would of started collecting something lighter and less fragile. Although I haven't broken any yet, the weight defiantly adds up after living out of a back pack for 3 months. 

I've defiantly picked up some other great amazing gifts and souvenirs from around the world. My favorite Czech Liquor (Becherovka), Best Czech Beer Jenik, Russian Standard (amazing Vodka), MOONSHINE!, some awful bottles of Absinthe, and the best bottle of wine I have ever had (Italian of course). Yeah, I must seem like an alcoholic. I also got a South Korean friend's statistic book that he wrote himself. Some awesome soccer stuff, Sensation White sunglasses, and the a Red Running of the Bulls Scarf!      

What do you collect when traveling? Let me know in the comments.

(Here is my trophy shelf of travel stuff. I have traveled to 37 countries, but missing a few shot glasses)

Monday, 21 January 2013

A day Inside The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Kiev… a beautiful part of the less explored Eastern Europe. It is a modern city with this sort of New York-esque vibe to it. It is hard to explain, but it seemed like there were always people on the go and dressed for any occasion. There is an underground city; a labyrinth of shops, malls and food stands in the heart of the city.  Ukraine was amazing, but the incredible Dutch friends I met along the way made it an unforgettable 5 days in Kiev. However, Kiev is not the focus of today’s post. We are here to discuss something a lot darker and less vibrant; the worst nuclear disaster of all time.

Today I will be discussing my tour inside The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. I will be providing all the details you need to book your tour from Kiev->Chernobyl at the end.
It was a beautiful morning; I had drunk a little bit the night before. Peer pressured by the Dutch friends in my hostel.  Luckily, I had prepared a snack for the morning, because I was running late to the meeting point and it would be a long day. The tour left from Dnripo Hotel  at around 9 am. I hopped on the bus…paid the driver 680 Ukrainian Kryvna ($85)…went straight to the back, put on some Sigur Ros and passed out. (trust me the drive is not that scenic.) About and hour or so later I wake up to some guy speaking broken English and asking for my passport...I awake very confused and handed it to him, hopped out of the van to see this.

For some reason the security guards did not want to let us through. It took about 30-45 mins of waiting at the checkpoint. We were just outside of the 30 kilometer zone (18.6 mile perimeter from the nuclear reactor explosion)...a few AK-47 yielding Ukrainian guards were between us and The Zone of Alienation.After a bit of a wait they told us to get on board and we began our tour of Pripyat and Chernobyl.

Our first stop would be at a peculiar museum filled with mirrored floors and ceilings. There were random items floating in the museum. It is hard to explain so take a look at the picture below.  

After this short first stop it was off to visit the creepiest place by far I have ever set foot in. This is the type of place that I will never forget. It is the basis of some video games/movies. The pre-school. A radiation filled, run down, destroyed pre-school to be more exact. Filled with headless teddy bears and kids toys...this place was the eeriest of the tour. . Pictures do a better description than I can.

After leaving the pre-school we headed off to check out a far view of the reactors. Finally, this was the first glimpse of the reactor where it all began. Later on, we went a bit closer, but it was still pretty far. I was completely okay with being a safe distance from huge amounts of radiation only covered by a lead building.  
The next stop was off to some building ruins. We were required to wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt to be on the tour. Luckily, the weather was perfect for this attire. We were recommended to wear a facemask, but I only put on for this photo op.

After walking around and exploring some of the ruins of the city we finally got to the walk to the most famous known part of the tour. The “circus area” filled with rundown bumper cars and a decrepit ferris wheel. This is something I had pictured in my head from movies and video games, but had no idea what to expect.

We were only allowed to stay around the circus area for around 15 minutes due to the fact it was one of the highest zones of radiation.  After leaving the circus, we headed to walk around an abandoned soccer field. The city of Chernobyl was filled with mostly families of the reactor plant workers and was said to be an upper middle class type of community there. Before we could enter the place for lunch we had to be tested for radiation (lunch was surprisingly good). These tests would happen once before lunch and two times on the departure of the tour.

After lunch we headed off to feed some ginormous radiation catfish…the biggest catfish I have ever seen up close. We threw them some bread and headed off for a closer view of the reactor.

Once outside the reactor we were instructed to not take any pictures or video of the construction happening next to the reactor.  So to explain the current situation in a few sentences. Chernobyl reactor explodes…dump lead into the reactor to block radiation…then build a giant lead sarcophagus around the reactor. This was a temporary fix. What we couldn’t film was the construction of another sarcophagus that is going to go over the current one. It is going to be like a box inside of a box full of radiation. The project is extremely underfunded and behind schedule by years. The reason for this being is that Russia takes no responsibility for Chernobyl and is providing no money to clean up their mess.

  Me in front of the main reactor holding a radiation detector.

After touring the main reactor, it was time to head home. On our way out we would be stopped for radiation testing 2 times before we could leave. Overall this was an amazing tour and a once in a lifetime chance to visit something on my bucket list of historic sites.
I recommend everyone to watch this great documentary about Chernobyl for free on Youtube. Click Here.
The documentary gave me a lot of information that was not covered by the tour guide and I am extremely happy to have watched it beforehand.

Read below to learn about how to book this tour.

First things first: You must book at least 11 days in advance to do this tour. There is a little bit of paperwork and arrangement that goes into this tour. And honestly it was a bit of a pain while backpacking to book this tour, but well worth it. Mainly being you need to fill out, sign and scan a letter To The Ministry of Emergency Situations of Ukraine. This was a pain because I had limited computer access, so keep this in mind.
Okay, so there are like 3 or 4 tour companies to book a Chernobyl tour. All of the other tour groups get approval from this main Government guide. Click Here. So I suggest using this one since they are the original and just recently allowed other tour groups into Chernobyl. Their website looks like a 10 year old designed it, but they really are legit and they gave me a student discount, so make sure to ask.
The total cost of the tour was $129 ($45 paid for a reservation fee upfront) and the rest paid on site in Ukrainian currency.
The tour includes an English-speaking guide and transport from Kiev. The tour group was about 14 people. They only allow so many people per day. The tour also included a big lunch, more food than most people can eat.  

Sunday, 13 January 2013

How did I catch the travel Bug?

It all began with War....War on Terror. Well not directly, but you could make a case for it.  In 2008 my Dad was asked if he wanted to do some contract work in  Baghdad, Iraq helping the city restructure electrical turbines. He accepted even though our family was mostly opposed.  Anyway, instead of my Dad taking his leave and coming back to the US, he decided to take my brother and I on a 7 night mediterranean sea cruise and then spend 5 nights in London. This is how my travel addiction began and I am proud to say I have been on a travel bender ever since May 2008.

Since going on that cruise I studied abroad in Bergamo, Italy for 5 weeks in May-June 2009...afterwards I applied for a two year study abroad student manager position and was selected to mange the Prague, Czech republic program. My first trip to Prague was in May 2010 followed by my final trip in May 2011 where I decided to move to Prague and stayed for a 1.5 years.  I am currently in my home town St. Louis, Missouri, but I have a one way flight booked to Australia in February. Between May 2008 and now I have traveled 37 countries and will be sharing travel tips and stories between 2008 and the present!

Friday Night Club

1st rule of Friday Night Club...You do not talk about Friday Night Club.

It was crowded, hot and very humid aboard the sweat-filled bus. The majority of the passengers were cover head to toes in white clothing. Some sporting red scarves and handkerchiefs (that's actually how you spell joke). We had just hopped on a bus in Madrid and were heading to Pamplona, Spain to RUN WITH THE BULLS!! This story is NOT about our mad dash from the Bulls. It is about the journey there, but I will get to the actual running, festival and other good stuff on another post. SO on the good friend and I were sitting next to six English guys who were explaining one of the most intriguing travel ideas I have ever heard of. They were all part of a group called Friday Night Club.

WTF is Friday Night Club?? Sounds pretty lame, but you have to remember that witty English blokes are telling this. Therefore, the name was not under much scrutiny yet.

Friday Night Club meets once a guessed it on Friday. This club consisted of six guys, one who arranges it, but they rotate the planner each month. The person arranging is the only one who knows the details. The other guys are only told the date, time and where to meet right after work on Friday. They were from London, got told to meet at a pub with their bags for the weekend, and had no clue if they would be going somewhere warm or cold. They did know they would be traveling and to bring their passports other than that they had no clue what was in store. 

Can you imagine going to the airport and it being a surprise which country you would be going to every month? They flew from London to Madrid, and at this point still not knowing what their final destination would be. Finally, once in Madrid they started to realize they would be heading to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona! 

It is such a crazy concept. Travel somewhere every month, no idea what to pack or where you are going. Five guys left in the dark. While the planner has some big event planned for the weekend. All of them had full time jobs and to fund Friday Night Club they put aside part of their paychecks each month.  

The weekend turned out to be the most memorable, crazy, fun, and adrenaline filled weekends of my life. Went homeless for three days, met some amazing people and now have some great stories to share the rest of my life. 

 Partying through the streets the night before the big run!