Strangers Like Me: Meet 28-year-old Heejung

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me.” Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city with a random person on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.

Heejung
Meet Heejung from Seoul, South Korea

Where’d I meet her?
Seville, Spain

Why is she traveling? 
She’s taking a break from monotony of work to travel Europe.

Where does she find happiness?
“Turkey  the town is Kas  it’s on the seaside. The reason is, I met my Turkish boyfriend there one month ago, and l loved it so much.”

What makes her happy?
“I love to see the natural places, not the city. I love the natural places, the trees, the mountains, the seaside. It’s so strange because happiness, it’s so small. So like, you give me some chocolate, and it makes me so happy. I think happiness is so small, so I can find happiness always.”

What’s on her bucket list?
“Actually, I didn’t write a bucket list, but I’m always doing a year plan, just for the year. This year my plan changed because I met my boyfriend in Turkey. So, I’ll come back to Korea, and maybe I’ll come back to Turkey again and stay there.”

Let her tell you about her couchsurfing miscommunication.
“I’m a couchsurfer, so in Tatvan, Turkey, I stayed in my friend’s home, and my friend has a flatmate, so there are two boys living there. One of the boys, he can’t speak English, so we met in Burger King together, and the host can speak English. The friend wanted to talk to me, and he (tried to tell) me, “Let’s go.” He is not good at speaking English, so he (accidentally) told me to get out. It was funny. He’s a good person  it’s just that he can’t speak English.”

Photo Gallery: Symmetry and sunburns in Seville

After nearly three weeks in the United Kingdom, I continued my journey to Spain, where I’ll be staying for about a month. My first stop? Hot, hot Seville. The temperature was pushing 100 degrees the first few days I was there, making me feel like I was right back in the South.

Even better, I kept recognizing familiar faces of other travelers in the city’s quaint streets where everyone strolls at a slower pace. I wish the same could be said about the way Sevillianos talk, but alas, my ears were given a major workout trying to understand the Spanish spoken by quick Andalusian tongues.

Despite some messy miscommunications, I loved it all. Pay a visit. But first, check out my favorite pictures from the trip:

Your best night’s sleep in a hostel (Yes, really!)

Between the bunkmate who’s snoring so loudly it sounds like she’s trying to pass an elephant through her nostril to the drunken bunch celebrating a World Cup win outside your window, it can be hard to feel rested while staying in hostels. Follow these tips, and learn how getting a good night’s sleep is actually quite eas—zzzzz.

Knock yourself out. Pack your days full of activities and walking. Make yourself so tired that by the time your head hits the pillow, you feel as if you can’t keep your eyes open any longer. By the time your noisy roommate returns, you’ll already be a couple sleep cycles in to not even notice.

Invest in a quality eye mask and ear plugs. No, not the ones from the plane. Cheap foam earplugs can fall out easily, and you don’t want an eye mask that’s so thin you can still tell there’s light shining through it. I suggest REI’s cushioned eye mask and ear plug set. The mask has an adjustable strap and feels like a cloud is snuggling the heck out of your face. The ear buds are a dream, too.

Opt for a smaller room. Fewer roommates mean fewer interruptions. But when your wallet just can’t swing for a smaller, more expensive room at every hostel, designate just a few nights here and there when you treat yourself to a smaller room to catch up on sleep.

Create your own privacy curtain. Privacy curtains are a luxury in the hostel world, but if they don’t come standard at your place, no worries. Go for a bottom bunk, and drape your bath towel overhead of your bed. Voilà! Instant darkness and a chance for your perpetually damp towel to finally dry.

Strangers Like Me: Meet 19-year-old Fergus

Happy Thursday! I’m rolling out a new weekly segment that features (just some of) the interesting people I meet during my European travels. Though it might not have the same photographic merit, think of it as an international version of “Humans of New York” that focuses specifically on people’s bucket lists and their definition of happiness.

By attending and writing about cultural festivals, you get to learn a lot about what locals value in life, but those traveling among you have just as interesting of stories to tell. That’s why, for now, this segment will solely focus on the people I meet in hostels.

Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.

IMG_9916

Meet Fergus from Christchurch, New Zealand

Where’d I meet him?
London, United Kingdom

Why is he traveling? 
He’s taking a gap year and volunteering on a farm in France.

Where else does he want to go? 
Athens, Greece and Iceland to see the Northern Lights.

What was the happiest day of his life? 
“Probably in Queenstown, and it was like two days before New Year’s. We rented out this huge house, like a holiday home. Me and this guy were skating down this huge hill, and I broke my arm, which sucked. But it was still one of the best days of my life because we were just hanging out and going to the hospital. We were drinking, obviously, like a little, not too much. I don’t know, it was just such a good day because we were just hanging out and being carefree, I guess.”

What does he want to do before he dies?
“Skydive, 100 percent. I want to swim with a great white shark and dolphins and a manta ray, like a really big manta ray. I want to go to all seven continents. If I could visit every single country, (I would), but definitely all seven continents. I want to live in Asia with the people there.”

Let him tell you about his milkshake tattoo. 
“Me and my friend were going to go get some money out from some ATM, and then we start walking there. Because I’m in Bali, people just come up to you on the street like, ‘Come to my store, come to my store.’ People hand out business cards, and (a man) gave us his business card and around the back it said ‘tattoo.’ We were talking about tattoos, and we were like ‘F–k, we should get tattoos.’ So we ended up walking down this back alley, which seemed a little bit dodgy, to this tattoo studio, and it was called ‘Panda’s Tattoos.’ So this Indonesian guy at the Panda was like, ‘What do you want done? I’ll do whatever you want.’ So we started drawing, and obviously I drew a milkshake or a doughnut, and then I flipped a coin, and it was a milkshake.”

Photo Gallery: Tales from Morocco’s blue cities

There are cities that look great in every tourist’s photos, and then there are cities so beautiful that no photo, no matter how expertly taken, could do a justice. After visiting Morocco this weekend, I feel the country’s emblematically blue cities of Chefchaouen and Asilah are a lot like that.

As Americans we hear a lot about Islamic countries, how frightening and different they can be, but we rarely experience them for ourselves. While I did feel a bit of culture shock while visiting, many of the Moroccans I met were wonderful, complex and kind.

I’m thankful that they shared a bit of their hometowns’ beauty with me, and I only wish I had more time to get to know them better. There’s always next time, I suppose. Here are a few of my favorite photos from my adventures:

Traveling on a budget: Tips for the frugal foodie

With exotic destinations comes incredible food — but also exorbitant prices. Europe is notorious for its expensive restaurants, and to the cost-conscious traveler, that currency exchange rate doesn’t help much. Only having $20 a day to spend on meals has been a challenge for this self-professed foodie, but I’ve learned a few things along the way. Here are some of my tips:

Drink your own water. Many restaurants only offer bottled water even if the local tap is safe to drink. Sure, a water bottle is just a dollar or two, but that money could be better spent on another round of gelato. Fill up an eco-friendly bottle at the hotel before taking on the day.

Opt for food with a view. Take advantage of Europe’s gorgeous parks and riverside views by packing as many picnics as possible. Don’t have a way to prepare food of your own? Many cafés offer their sandwiches and pastries at lower prices if you’re getting carry-out instead of dining in.

Eat lunch out and dinner in. Lunch is always more affordable than dinner. If you have a kitchenette in your hotel or hostel, pick a few nights to make your own meals.

Check out the market at closing time. When it comes to cheap eats, open-air markets are a no-brainer. If you’re looking to get a real steal, head to the market around closing time as vendors drop their prices. Bonus: They can sometimes offer up the tastiest, most authentic food around.

Do your research. When you’re petered out and starving after a long day of sightseeing, the last thing you want to do is sacrifice taste and affordability for an overpriced eatery teeming with tourists just because it’s what’s nearby. Check out reviews online ahead of time for no unpleasant surprises. Know when to splurge and when to save.

In England, broken bones all for the sake of cheese

Aside from his electric blue hair, there are few parts of Dave Munro’s body that aren’t covered in mud. The entire back of his jeans is caked with an unfortunate hue of brown, and his hands look as if they had been tilling a field for days. A gash slowly seeps blood from his left arm, which cradles a bottle of Stella Artois cider that will soon nurse the pain.

Actually and rather remarkably, Munro, who hails from Perth, Scotland, isn’t all that bent out of sorts, but you should see the other guys.

The hill he stands on, a nearly vertical, 600-foot tall behemoth, is littered with dozens of thrill-seeking masochists who are strung out in all sorts of shapes.

Camera crews crowd around a man with his teeth furiously sunk into a cloth as a few men  call them Sherpas this side of Mt. Everest  escort him down after he breaks his leg.

There are murmurs that someone might be unconscious.

A little while earlier a woman was carried off for a broken neck after doing a somersault, after somersault, after somersault, after …

It’s May 26, a bank holiday in the United Kingdom, and I’m in Gloucestershire, England for the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake, a sleepy-town tradition dating back to the 19th century.

Today, just as in the past couple of hundreds of years, dozens of competitors play a game of chance roulette in which they will take an adrenaline-fueled plummet down one of the steepest hills southwestern England has to offer  and there’s no pretty or delicate way to do it.

Some run, some slide, some tumble, but no matter their technique of choice, all face imminent doom. Everyone will be bounced around just like the ball of the game they have signed over their fates to.

What will they incur? Some bruises? A good head-bang? An obliterated pelvis?

Luck isn’t exactly on their side. Though the number of injuries has fallen in the past few years, the stakes are still high. 1997 had the most injuries, 33.

If it’s not broken or dislocated, something will get bruised.

But you see, there’s this cheese. And while most children dream of becoming the next Wimbledon champ or Manchester United’s next superstar, hopes of snagging that coveted roll of homegrown savory Double Gloucester are just as valid in this town.

(There’s a whole crop of boys and girls under the age of 14 who compete in uphill races in preparation for perhaps one day taking on the downhill competition.)

Sure, the payoff isn’t that great and the reasoning behind competing isn’t always the most well thought out, yet tradition persists.

“I was drunk one night, and I saw it on the internet,” Munro said. “I can’t lie.”

To the curious outsider, the event doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

“I was drunk one night, and I saw it on the internet. I can’t lie.”

Competitors risk snapping their limbs and necks in two as they make a disorderly attempt to catch  and win  an elusive roll of cheese that isn’t in the best shape after its bumpy, muddy descent.

Even to locals, the whole thing is head-scratching, but that doesn’t stop them from watching. They turn up in droves every year for reasons even they have difficulty explaining.

Just ask Paul Templeman, a resident of Brockworth, why he’s been dozens of times since he was a child. He can only offer up this sentiment: “It’s local. It’s just a bit of fun.”

As for why he has never competed once despite all the times he’s been, Templeman’s answer is much clearer. “‘Cause I’m not that stupid,” he says with a playful huff.

But after all, if there were no competitors, there’d be nothing worth watching.

An estimated 5,000 people attended this year’s event, leaving me to wonder where exactly all the locals were hiding when I arrived the day prior.

A fortuitously bleak sky greeted me upon my arrival at Gloucester’s bus station in the central part of the village that Sunday.

My 45-minute trek on foot to my hotel was not the most scenic of routes. With its abandoned business parks and parking lots overrun by weeds, Gloucestershire initially struck me as the sort of area where the local kids are forced to make their own fun.

Aside from Storage King and a BP service station, where I combed my way through aisles of soggy quiche and oily hummus that I lived off of for three days, my hotel was in the middle of nowhere.

The village of Gloucester has a few bragging rights. Scenes of the first, second and sixth Harry Potter movies were filmed in Gloucester Cathedral. One of its churches, St. Oswald’s Priory, dates back to the 880s or 890s. Other than that, it isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of England. 

But for one reason or another, the cheese-rolling competition has given the city an international pull, with some people traveling as far as Australia wishing for a taste of victory.

Taste of victory
A spectator poses with one of the event’s famous rolls of Double Gloucester cheese.

All the recent attention has local authorities cracking down on the tradition.

What once was an official town event until 2010 has recently been viewed as reckless debauchery that caters to outlaws   or freedom fighters, depending on how you look at them.

Police have even warned local cheese-makers who provide the dairy for the race that they might be liable for any injuries that occur.

Competitors and spectators have their unique reasons for skirting around the road closures, jumping the fences, ignoring the warning signs and enduring a long hike up several other hills before Cooper’s Hill.

But one thing remains clear: There’s no love for the establishment here.

“(I do it for) tradition, fun and a disregard for our government who says kids can’t play conkers anymore,” says hometown competitor Leighton Grealis, referring to the popular but increasingly banned British school-yard game that involves whacking chestnuts tied to string against one another.

At one point during the competition, police helicopters began to fly overhead, temporarily disrupting the festivities. Whether the spectators knew the helicopter belonged to the police or mistook it for that of a TV station, everyone began to wave to it as a soared above, a cheeky British salute as if to say “catch us if you can.”

Just 7 minutes prior to the event’s kick-off at noon, it began to drizzle in true English fashion, softening the rugged land just slightly for the bums about to go down it.

The event consists of five main races: three downhill men’s races, a downhill women’s race, a free-for-all downhill race. There are also three uphill races, two of which are for children.

Shortly after a loud proclamation made on the megaphone, a tiny blur of white can be seen falling down the hill. It’s the 8-pound cheese striped with red and blue and a reminder to the competitors about how much more they have left to go.

Then a couple dozen men come barrelling down after it. Each bump they encounter on the hill is met with an uproar of laughter from the crowd. There goes a man dressed as Axl Rose. Did I just see Super Mario? There’s no web that can save Spider-Man here. Once you’re in the race, you’re in it until the rocky end.

Spider-Man
Spider-Man makes an appearance at Cooper’s Hill, but isn’t so graceful without his webs.

Any techniques? “No, no. Just run like hell,” Munro says. “Run like hell.”

Munro joked after the race that he had been tossing miniature rolls of Babybel cheese down his home’s staircase to practice the week prior. At the end of the day’s festivities, he kindly handed me one.

But in order to win the race, you must finish it. While it’s impossible to look graceful, those who fare well have a more calculated approach: Pick up speed when you can, slack where needed.

It’s certainly a talent the hometown competitors have picked up on. All but one of the races was won by a competitor from Gloucestershire.

People on the sidelines almost seem to be suffering sympathy pains for those they watch. With each blow a competitor takes comes a collective gasp from the audience.

“You throw yourself down and hope for the best.”

As a means of self-preservation, some competitors won’t allow themselves to process what is happening during the race.

“I was trying not to think, to be fair,” Grealis says. “You throw yourself down and hope for the best.”

Maybe we think too much before we do things. Maybe the best traditions are the ones that don’t make any sense at all.

As for blue-haired Munro, would he do it again? “Of course.”

He still needs to catch that cheese.

PHOTO GALLERY: 

Photo Gallery: From London, with love

With views like these, London is one tough city to leave. Love you forever, miss you always, London. Now it’s onto Edinburgh, but I’ll be back in a week. Expect a post about Gloucester’s cheese-rolling races in the next couple of days! I’ve got a 9-hour bus ride ahead of me, and tons of thoughts to put to paper err, blog.