A Weekend In Bruges - The Medieval Fairytale City

Bruges, Belgium • September 2017 • Length of Read: 12 Minutes

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Could you please stop what you are doing and give us your full undivided attention. I have a serious announcement to make…”

A silence fell over the cabin as a long pause ensued. We were about three-quarters of the way into the flight from Glasgow to Brussels Charleroi Airport and, ignoring the faint apology for our hour-long runway delay, it had so far been without a hitch. This sounded serious, though. I turned to the girl on my right and noticed that her face had faded to quite the shade of white. Even fake tan can’t hide a flush of nerves. On 22nd March 2016, three coordinated suicide bombs exploded in Belgium, and a Level 3 terror alert was still in place across the country. The UK Government travel advice website continues to issue the warning that ‘terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Belgium’, with the Belgian authorities indicating that ‘there is a serious and real threat’.

“We’ve gone a little bit crazy here today,” continued the pilot, his voice crackling back over the PA system. “But if you play your cards right, one of you could become very rich.”

Putting down my copy of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Texas Rangers come cattle herders, I began to fear a hostage situation.

“Ryanair are giving away free scratch cards,” the pilot then announced, his previously stern voice taking on an almost sing-song tone. “Yes, that’s right. If you buy five scratch cards for just €10 then we’ll give you a sixth one completely free. And if that wasn’t enough, if you buy €20 worth, not only will you get twelve scratch cards but I’ll also throw in my co-pilot’s mobile number. He’s single; enjoys long walks on the beach; can cook, and bends both ways, if you know what I’m saying? Want to be in with a chance of winning €1million? Then look out for our crew members passing through the cabin very shortly.”

I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and re-opened the 900-page tome of which I was only a demoralizing 88 pages into. I’ve written before about how I regard budget airline carriers to simply be shops with wings, and this was a prime example. In addition to the scratch cards; foodstuffs; and gadgets, immediately prior to the seatbelt signs being illuminated for landing the cabin crew then turned master perfumers. Offering a seemingly larger selection of fragrances than the beauty section of a department store, they wheeled a trolley of incense sticks down the aisle, inviting each passenger to purchase exclusive smells such as Jean Paul Gautier and Dior at rock-bottom prices. It all smelled like a con to me, however, and I was delighted to finally disembark down the plane stairs at Brussels Charleroi Airport to a baking sun and blue skies.

I use ‘Brussels’ here in the loosest of terms. Even if you stretched the greater Brussels metropolitan area to its limits, Charleroi still wouldn’t fall into its municipality. In fact, it’s an entirely separate city, the fifth most populous in Belgium, and it took me ninety minutes on a combination of buses and trains to reach the centre of Belgium’s capital. How Ryanair can get away with calling this a flight to Brussels, I have no idea. But then, at least the airport knows. I once flew into Kuala Lumpur Airport only to discover that it was sixty miles, and a ninety-minute bus ride, to the city. That’s like calling Edinburgh Airport, ‘Glasgow Airport’.

I was taking a long weekend trip to the fairytale medieval city of Bruges, and skirting around the numerous armed and camouflaged military that had been deployed at seemingly every transport station in Brussels, I grabbed some dinner and hopped on a seventy-minute train towards my destination. By the time I’d arrived I was still only on page 166. Dumping my bag in the shared dorm I’d booked at St Christopher’s Bauhaus, a chain of dreary and lifeless hostels that are oddly popular across Europe, I headed for a dusk walk around the cobbled historic centre, the entire area a prominent UNESCO World Heritage Site. What I saw blew my mind.

The cult black comedy In Bruges is one of my favourite films ever and was the main influencing factor as to why, at that moment in time, I found myself wandering down Bruges’ picturesque cobbled lanes; following narrow brick bridges over quaint canals and across bustling market squares. Grandiose towers and church steeples give the city literal stature as they play big brother to their perfectly-preserved and colourfully painted sibling houses and taverns. Restaurant seating spilt out onto the pavements and the laughter of patrons could be heard over a diverse array of languages and clinked glasses. I slid into a bar called Snuffel and ordered a strong Belgian ale, so absorbed by my surroundings that it felt like I’d daydreamed myself back in time.

Five English lads crowded around a table at the other end of the bar and approaching them with some trepidation I made introductions. “Rangers or Celtic?” asked the shortest and scruffiest member of the group, picking up on my Scottish accent. It was a question I hated almost more than any other when travelling. Almost as much as ‘Where in Ireland are you from?’ which I seem to get asked in droves.

“Glasgow Warriors,” I replied, referring to my local rugby team. I pretended long enough as a teenager that I had a care for football so as not to alienate friendships, but as an adult, I’m happy to admit that it’s a monkey no longer on my back. Nip the conversation in the bud, and if they don’t like it they can piss off, that’s what I say. The lads were in Bruges for one night, having road-tripped through the Channel Tunnel that morning, and, unfortunately for me, piss off is exactly what they then did. Damn.

As the quintet went out to explore, I hung about the bar for a bit longer until I began to yawn. It had been a long commute to get to Bruges, but every step I’d taken so far through the oil-painting beauty of the city had been worth it. Unlike football, I’d honestly struggle to see how Bruges couldn’t be somebody’s cup of tea. Apart from Ray in the film In Bruges, that is:

Harry: “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?”

Ken: “What I think Ray meant to say was…”

Harry: “Is the swans still there?”

Ken: “Yeah, there are swans.”

Harry: “How can fucking swans not fucking be somebody’s fucking thing, eh? How can that be?”

I was charmingly awoken at the unrespectable hour of 5am the following morning by the beeping alarm clock of the Jesus-looking Israeli guy in the bunk above me. Causing earthquake-like tremors as he jumped off his bed to the floor, he then flicked on the light and proceeded to rustle around plastic bags like he was at a supermarket checkout. Well, that was me up for the day.

I was meeting a friend for lunch and wanted to do one of the free walking tours and cross off the main sightseeing attractions before catching up with her. Making my way along the corridor at Bauhaus towards reception, a waft of stale piss emanating from the communal toilets, I inquired with the young girl behind the desk as to where the meeting points for said tours were, their timeframes, and what ones came recommended. She rather unhelpfully couldn’t answer any of these questions. Instead, I found myself browsing around online for the necessary details. It didn’t strike me as too unreasonable a line of questions to ask someone working in hospitality, and I really racked my brains to come up with a reasonable explanation for her lack of common knowledge. I couldn’t find one. She was clearly just disinterested and shit at her job.

The fresh morning air cut right through me as I left the Bauhaus, sending a chill down my spine as I ventured along the now deserted streets. The birds were chirping, the skies were clear, and it was sure to become a scorcher of a day ahead. The rush hour morning commute consisted of a nun bustling past me towards the convent and the hooves from a horse-drawn cart clicking their way along the cobbles. There’s something empowering and inspiring about having a city completely to yourself. You have nothing but your thoughts as company, but at that moment it’s the best conversation you could ask for.

I found my way through Bruges’ canal-lined maze to the Market Square and Belfort bell tower. Probably the focal point of the city, the Belfry, as it’s called in English, stands at a slanted 83m and formerly served as an observation post for spotting dangers whilst housing the city’s treasures and municipal archives. The steep, narrow, winding staircase has 366 steps. I paid my €10 entrance fee to climb them and, before setting off, nodded towards the overweight American tourist limbering up and stretching his calves out at the bottom. Having marvelled at the view of the spectacular morning haze that leeched over the city from the top, I again passed him on my descent, still not even a third of the way up. This was his Everest.

In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;
Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o’er the town.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Belfry of Bruges

Our extroverted walking tour guide was a Puerto Rican called Kai. Having initially come across to Europe on a backpacking trip, he’d fallen in love; learned the Dutch language, and now been calling Bruges his home for five years. As a group of misfit tourists gathered around him in the Market Square, Kai began the tour by explaining that the gable-stepped architectural roof features found on a large portion of the buildings were not just status symbols of the wealthy and powerful, but ergonomically designed so that chimney sweeps had easier access for their cleaning duties back in the day.

The following two hours were a continuum of quirky facts and little-known tales from the city’s rich history, which Kai delivered with the performance of a Broadway actor. Some of the more interesting and important points Kai mentioned included:

  • Bruges is home to dozens of churches, but only one cathedral; the reason being that cathedrals act as the seat of a bishop and each faith only permits one cathedral per city.
  • The medieval spiral staircase in the Belfort goes clockwise because most people are right-handed. This direction allows defenders facing downwards a greater range of movement when wielding their swords against enemies.
  • The best Belgian waffles are served from the van parked in Burg Square.
  • A café at the northern end of the city, where old windmills stand atop a grassy hill, serves vegetarian fries that are not baked in animal fat (vital, I know).
  • Apart from snacks and desserts, traditional Belgian food is not much to write home about.
  • In 1488, the people of Bruges executed Pieter Lanchals, the bailiff and counsellor of Emperor Maximillian of Austria. ‘Lanchals’ means ‘long neck’ and the Lanchals family crest featured a white swan. Legend has it that Maximillian punished the city by forcing the people to keep swans on their lakes and canals till eternity. Whether this is true or not, Bruges is covered with them. Crobs Abroad fact: A male swan is called a cob, not a cock. Never give a swan a knob.
  • Many houses have missing windows or even fake, painted ones. Back in the 19th-century people had to pay taxes on the amount of windows they had in their house, and since Belgians have a reputation for being masters at evading taxes a lot of people bricked up the windows just before the taxman came by.
  • Café Vlissinghe is famous for half a millennium of hangovers, having been serving alcohol to patrons for over 500 years. The oldest bar in Bruges, it is almost completely in its original condition.

Grabbing a flat white at the lovely Vero Coffee just off the Market Square, Ann-Sofie soon entered and welcomed me with a big smile. We’d met in the northern Thailand hippie town of Pai earlier in the year whilst both backpacking through Asia, and when I’d mentioned to her that I was thinking of visiting Bruges she immediately offered to take time out of her weekend to show me about her homeland and catch-up. Having studied at Ghent University she was now working in the charming little coastal town of Ostend, twenty-five minutes west of Bruges, and with a summer sun basking over Belgium that weekend she suggested we head out of the city and to the beach. I agreed, and we were soon hammering down the freeway in her hatchback. Despite having working cruise control, the air conditioning was broken, so the journey was pleasantly smooth but unpleasantly warm.

The view along the boardwalk in Ostend is a poster for a permanent vacation, and it felt therapeutic to walk along with a good friend, licking ice-creams and discussing life. Children splashed about in the sea as their parents sunbathed on towels laid down on the golden sand; kids raced along the pier on scooters and bikes, enjoying the last bit of freedom before school started back, and couples held hands as strolled along, embracing their romantic vacation. Staring out to the ocean, it dawned on me that the landmass just out of sight was Britain. Never had I been so close to home, but felt so far away.

Drink Steins of Beer in Bavaria (Bucket List #28)

Munich, Germany • July 2017 • Length of Read: 7 Minutes

For such a metropolitan city, the amount of greenery and open space in Munich is a joy to behold. As Fry and I left our hostel to go and explore the Bavarian capital, we had to double-check the map numerous times to convince ourselves that we were actually heading in the direction of the city centre; the wide, quaint, and calm streets more depictive of a leisurely stroll through leafy suburbs as opposed to the beating heart of a bustling urban dwelling. Now world-famous for its arts; finance; technology; and beer-consumption, Munich, a derivation of the phrase ‘by the monks’, was originally settled as a key point on the Old European Salt Route, before more recently becoming the hotbed of extreme politics that led to the rise of the Nazi Party.

“Don’t mention The War this weekend,” said Fry as we entered an artesian French boulangerie for some breakfast, quoting a version of the famous John Cleese saying from Fawlty Towers. Twelve episodes of this classic British comedy were made but, interestingly, when a German television network bought the broadcasting rights, only eleven episodes were ever shown. Perhaps the episode called The Germans, which sees John Cleese goose-stepping around his hotel restaurant whilst doing a mock impression of Adolf Hitler, was deemed a little too close to home for the stereotypical German sense of humour to handle.

We were the only customers in the tiny shop, and the pretty Romanian-Italian server seemed overjoyed at our arrival. An enormous pair of boobs spilt out of her low-cut crop top and, ordering a selection of croissants and baguettes, Fry indiscreetly ogled them whilst entering into some light small-talk about where we could go that evening to find some traditional local beer and a student nightlife.

“Let me write a few places down for you,” she kindly offered, leaning over the counter that she was standing behind and scribbling down a few illegible street names on a piece of paper. Thinking that we were about to see a nipple slip, Fry gave me a sly nudge. She looked up and smiled, clearly knowing exactly what she was doing. A bit of harmless flirting hurt nobody.

“Are you doing anything tonight?” I asked her after another five minutes of blathering away. She genuinely seemed like a really cool person to hang out with and had already taught Fry some basic German phrases that he would immediately forget upon exiting the shop and never attempt to recite again for the rest of the weekend.

“Sorry boys, I have to get up early for work tomorrow,” she replied, genuinely bummed.

“Perhaps you’ll see us looking a bit more hungover and dishevelled tomorrow morning, then,” I laughed, turning to leave. “Arrivederchi.”

“A dopo,” she smiled.

Right in the middle of Munich, an artificial river winds its way through a large scenic park called the English Garden. As the sun shone high in the blue late-July sky, Fry and I found our way to its banks, where, despite still being early in the day, dozens of groups of students and families already sat around on picnic blankets; catching some rays; drinking beers; laughing; and going for the occasional swim down the fast-flowing stream. “Now, this is what a city-centre should look like,” I said to my companion, who had just about finished announcing his smitten affection for the Romanian-born, Italian-raised, German-speaking, French-baking, girl.

We followed the bends of the river round until we reached a large Chinese pagoda that overlooked an outdoor beer garden and food court; the lederhosen-wearing German oompah band in full puff on their brass instruments providing the backing track to where we were inevitably going to spend the majority of our day. You don’t sit down on the wooden benches of a Bavarian beer garden and have just the one stein. Tucking into a currywurst and fries, I marvelled in the groups of lads lugging food-crates of beer from the bar back to their commandeered tables, gajba puna pivas. Fry turned to see what I was laughing at and then looked back with a pair of drunken eyes.

“You know what Crobs,” he said in a suspicious whisper whilst indicating towards the six blonde German dudes three tables down from us. “They would have been S.S.”

“You can’t fucking say that,” I hissed, trying to contain my laughter at the absurdity of this statement. “What did you warn me this morning? Oh, right. ‘Don’t mention The War’,”

“But think about it,” he continued as if he actually had some form of a valid point. “They are about our age, so they would have been.”

“Going by that logic, then,” I said, trying to diffuse the point, “we would be facing them in military uniform from the other side of the battlefield. Need I remind you, however, that it’s 2017 and not 1939.”

Dropping this line of conversation before we were overheard, we talked shit and drank all the way into the early evening. As the light began to fade, we crawled out of the park towards the subway station on the main pedestrianised shopping precinct. Here, we were joined by our friend Bing, fresh off a plane from Berlin where he was studying for the summer. After some brief pleasantries, we then immediately dragged him to a large indoor bierkeller where he was forced to play catch-up. It worked, and only a couple of hours after landing in the city, Bing was was suitably up to our level of drunkenness.

It had been seven months since the three of us had last been together, and we would have sat there drinking until breakfast had it been allowed, but, somewhat surprisingly, the majority of pubs and bars in Munich tend to shut at 11:30pm. And as the stern waiters cleared our empty glasses, we were forcibly stared out of the establishment and onto the street right on the stroke of the half-hour. A crowd of equally pissed Irish lads had also received the same treatment and were cussing away at the rudeness of the staff members to the fat, lederhosen-wearing, German dude who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. I went over to ask what their plans were from then onwards, but none of them had a clue.

Then, quick as a flash, Bing crept up behind me, nabbed the fancy feathered hat straight off the fat German’s head, and sprinted on up the street whooping with glee. The local man, who must have been about forty-years-old and on the diabetes risk list, pelted off after him and, remarkably, caught up with Bing before the pair got out with earshot.

“You’ll die on your feet in Bavaria,” he yelled, his caustic voice echoing back down the street. “That hat cost me 6,000 Euro. Give me it back, now.”

“Finders keepers,” taunted Bing, as the pair moved closer and closer. Fry and I quickly left the Irish lads and legged it up to where they were arguing before anything physical happened. Whilst on a boys holiday to Greece in 2008, Bing had got into an altercation with a man of similar build to the German who ended up flooring both him and another one of our friends with a single punch. No matter how funny it had been, we didn’t fancy a repeat of it. With some gentle coaxing, we convinced Bing to return the hat to its rightful owner and he eventually backed down. Before he had a change of heart, we then disappeared around the corner and back in the direction of our hostel. Despite it not yet being midnight, the city had already defeated us.

Our hostel dorm smelled like a brewery when I awoke the following morning, and after having flooded the bathroom in a hungover attempt at showering I convinced the others that some coffee and fresh air would do us the world of good. We stumbled in the direction of the French bakery but instead decided upon trying out a quirky little café across the street from it which had outdoor tables. As I went inside to destroy the restroom, Fry and Bing ordered some food and lattes from the beautiful, tanned, waitress who, as it would transpire, had actually spent a fair bit of time in our home city of Glasgow when her younger sister was over there studying on a university exchange program.

“My arse went off like a bloody volcano in there,” I announced upon sitting down, loud enough for the entire English-speaking population of the café, including said waitress, to hear. The gay couple next to us sniggered away and exchanged a few softly spoken words that were directly aimed at me, and a few other tables looked away in disgust. Apparently, these people were ‘too cool’ for a bit of literal toilet humour.

“Thanks for that Crobs,” said Fry, looking slightly embarrassed on my behalf.

“At least I didn’t mention The War or steal a local’s prized headpiece,” I chuckled. Personally, I couldn’t give a shit what a pair of hipster homosexuals thought of me. We had our drinks and food in relative silence, my arse still brewing like molten lava and head pounding like it were an old typewriter being used by a gorilla to write an angry letter. As we got up to leave, the Romanian-Italian girl spotted us from the door of her shop and gave us a wave. ‘I’m sure she would have appreciated my joke,’ I thought, smiling back at her.

George Town, Penang - A Perplexing Melting Pot of Culture & Cuisine

George Town, Penang, Malaysia • April 2017 • Length of Read: 9 Minutes

Panting heavily, I leaned on a waist-high wall, wiped my sweaty brow, and cast my eyes over the ant-sized streets and buildings; sprawling out like an endless spider web from beyond the dense green foliage that lay below me. Lauren, Derek, and I had spent the last five-hours climbing the torturously steep Penang Hill; wrestling through insect-infested undergrowth and trampling along the baking-hot and winding roads. The view with which we were rewarded from the restaurant at the top, however, was staggering. As the sun slowly began to set, thousands of lights flickered on and off like fireflies; the two bridges which connect Penang Island to the main Malaysian Peninsula melting into the darkening, cloud-filled, sky. One of the last states in Asia to gain independence from the British Empire, this densely-populated economic powerhouse finds itself at a crossroads between the East and West; with a thriving port, a barrage of different cultures, and a bustling tourist trade. And no more so is this evident than in George Town, my stomping ground for the previous twelve days as I wrote my next book, watched Sergio Garcia secure his first green jacket by winning The Masters golf tournament, and gorged on the awesome food.

Situated at the North-Eastern tip of Penang, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is covered pavement to ceiling in the commissioned 3D graffiti of Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, and going on just the shortest of evening strolls around George Town will leave you absolutely perplexed. Turning right out of Ryokan Muntri Hostel, where I resided for the majority of my stay, you are immediately hit with conflicting smells of the artesian cake shop on one side of the road and the flame-fired wok of the Chinese woman selling flash-fried noodles from her living room on the other. Continuing past a cat café and hipster whiskey bar to the end of the block, an Odeon cinema then looms over you. Just when you fancy a bit of British home comfort and look to see what movies are playing that day, however, you realise that the cinema has since been converted into a high-class French cuisine restaurant.

Taking the next left, a 7-Eleven Minimart and Thai massage parlour sharing the street corner, you then find yourself on Love Lane; tables and chairs sprawling out from the dozens of drinking establishments that have commandeered this aptly named avenue. Don’t count on finding any local beer here, though, as it is technically illegal to brew alcohol in this Muslim country (although moonshine isn’t too difficult to come by). Instead, glowing neon signs advertising Carlsberg, Tiger, and Heineken blind you as hordes of drunk tourists blether away in English and party until the sweltering early hours of the morning and the mosques signal that it’s time for sunrise prayer.

There was a Scottish guy staying in a nearby hostel called Tipsy Tiger who, not once, but two days in a row, missed his flight back to Kuala Lumpur because he slept through his alarm clock. Surprising, considering that the bedrooms sported triple bunk beds with no mosquito nets and looked more like the inside of cargo shipping containers than my nicely air-conditioned paradise down the road. Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that every guest got two free double-vodka mixers each night of their stay and that the beer pong table never seemed to be empty. Whatever the reason, I’m glad he was doing our little nation proud.

Hungover, you bleakly apply some sunscreen and make your way to one of the myriad hipster cafes that can be found hidden down inconspicuous alleyways, a flat white and liquid-nitrogen infused chocolate ice-cream sure to kick start the brain neurons. The property market in George Town seems to entirely negate neighbourhood differences, and commercial prices are apparently unaffected by whether you have a five-star hotel next to your establishment or an impoverished slum. The comic value of munching down an organic vegetarian salad at Yin’s Sourdough Bakery and then having to hop-scotch around a collection of homeless people residing in the entranceway is something to behold.

But more than any of these quirks, the primary draw of George Town for tourists has to be its world-renowned food scene. Traditional Malay, Chinese, and Indian street food stalls line nearly every sidewalk, creating a melting pot of flavours and smells. Don’t expect to find any English-translated menus or table service here, pointing at the perplexing food being cooked before you is the only way in which you’re going to fill your plate, 50% of which you’ll be able to identify and the other 50% a complete guess as to what it actually is you’re about to eat. And forget about portion control, £5 never bought me so much grub. Perhaps avoid the seafood, though. An American guy I had the displeasure of dining with one evening found himself bedridden for a few days after trying to stomach a raw octopus stew.

Taking the funicular down the hill, Lauren’s suggestion of saving money by retracing our footsteps having been quickly dismissed, we went to a highly-recommended restaurant called Two Buns for dinner. Twelve days of hit-or-miss Asian cuisine had got me salivating for some Western food, and as we waited for our succulent burgers to be cooked, Derek and I played Street Fighter on the retro arcade video game machine that the owners had installed in the corner. Now, it feels wrong to say this, but the order that soon arrived was hands-down the best meal of my entire stay in George Town. Perhaps it was because I was as ravenous as a wolf after all the hiking, perhaps it was the distant taste of home. Either way, at that moment Asian street food had no place in my belly or heart. Say what you like about mama’s home-cooked curries and hand-crafted noodle dishes. For me, a massive, succulent, juicy, burger is just too hard to beat.

Stuffed, we headed around the corner to a bar called B@92 for a few quiet drinks, strangely named after the popular Serbian radio station of all things. This made a bit more sense when we were welcomed in by a burly, bald-headed, Eastern European dude, however, who introduced himself as Aleksandar and his Chinese wife as Jun. The place was a yard sale of random memorabilia, with a fish tank behind the bar where the spirit bottles are usually found, war propaganda posters acting as wall paper, various medieval weapons pinned loosely to the wooden fittings, and a tiny little dog jumping between the tables and licking every face it passed.

A gregarious Serb, Aleksandar’s caustic voice was all we heard for the next hour as he regaled tales from his hometown, fed us conspiracy theories, and boasted about how much he could drink. Opening up a treasure chest in the corner, which looked like it could literally have been dragged from an actual shipwrecked pirate ship, we saw that it was completely filled to the brim with whiskey corks; his undoing locked away and for only a reserved few to see. To be fair, if I had to spend the rest of my life in Penang, as nice as it is to vacation to, I’d probably end up going the same way. One thing Aleksandar didn’t to us was how he’d ended up owning a bar in Penang in the first place, but when his ten-year-old Asian son came downstairs to say ‘hello’ to us, we felt that no further questions in this department were necessary. Finishing our drinks, we thanked him for the hospitality in a bar which was clearly also his front room and got up to leave.

“You said that you had a close friend who was Serbian?" Aleksandar said to me as I shook his hand goodbye.

“Yeah, someone very close to my heart.”

“Well, I have a message for you to pass on the next time you see her,” he chuckled, scribbling something down on the back of my receipt. It read: ‘Polizes mi Jaja, do Jaja’.

Walking along the golden sands of a Cambodian island beach a fortnight later, the little group that I’d befriended decided to stop at a makeshift tiki bar for a drink and to get some much-needed shade from the scorching midday sun. Ludicrously, another burly, shaven-headed, Eastern European guy welcomed us, and I started to scoff when he said that he was a successful Serbian-born businessman who had since retired to this quaint beach life.

“Can you translate something for me please?” I asked, still unsure as to whether I believe him or not. I mean, what were the chances?

“I’ll do my best,” he laughed, as I handed him Alexander’s scribbled note which had been folded at the back of my wallet ever since leaving B@92. Looking at it with furrowed brows, he started to shake his head. “Do you really want to know what this says?” he asked, seemingly a bit offended.

“Yes, please. It’s been bugging me for two-weeks now.”

“It’s quite hard to put this phrase into English,” he began. “But I suppose the literal version of it would be: ‘lick my ball sack, twice’.”

“Of course it is,” I laughed. “How could I have expected anything else?”

Getting Kicked Out of a Hungarian Lap Dancing Club

Budapest, Hungary • April 2014 • Length of Read: 14 Minutes

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The following extract has been adapted from my self-published paperback travel book, Crobs Abroad: A Scot’s Misadventures with a BackpackIt follows my mishaps across five different continents as I get comatose drunk on the Thai islands; kicked out of a Hungarian lap dancing club; kidnapped by the mayor of a Peruvian city; and trek for a week across the Moroccan Sahara. If you enjoy this post, then please visit my online bookshop for more details.

“We will shortly be coming around with scratch cards. For only £1 you could be in with the chance of winning free flights to any European destination of your choice.”

The fasten-seatbelt light faded with a simultaneous ‘bing’; just loud enough to shake all the plane’s passengers from momentary peace and to hear the subsequent drone of the PA system. That’s what these budget airlines do. Sucker customers in with cheap prices and for three hours they’ve got an impotent audience; hog-tied inside a metal box 30,000ft above terra firm and susceptible to all forms of advertising being barked at them by a pre-recorded bourgeois accent of security.

“Choose from our fine selection of regional teas and get a half-price chocolate bar.”

Seat 27b had been my location in this circumstance; trapped between two complete strangers with no aisle legroom and no window view. To my left sat a man with the build of a rugby player immersed in a Hungarian translation of 50 Shades of Grey. To my right, a fading rocker with a tartan flat cap and dubious goatee soul patch. I’d been told that travelling solo would get lonely, but at this point, I was snugger than ever. ‘This beats a Bolivian bus journey any day of the week at least,’ I thought to myself.

“Get our meal deal: A sandwich, packet of crisps, and a drink for only £4.50. Choose from Cheese & Ham, Tuna, or Cheese Savoury.”

Resting my head on the prop’s shoulder in an attempt to snooze I was abruptly shaken awake by a jeering flight attendant, waving a menu in my face and looking like she’d suffered a head-on collision with a peach coloured paint pot. I wasn’t aware Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompas had found new employment after the closure of their beloved Chocolate Factory. Perhaps they’d taken to the skies in an attempt to track down the Great Glass Elevator that now housed their eccentric employer. Behind the tangerine glow of fake-tan, I could just make out a mouth asking if I fancied anything from the trolley, her face cracking with every lip movement. It wasn’t so much a flight as an overpriced nomadic cafe.

“Celebrate with a bottle of champagne for only £29.99. It doesn’t need to be a special occasion to enjoy a few bubbles.”

I politely declined the Black Label Brut, seeing it solely as an attempt by the cabin crew to mask the taste of the cremated badger penis that they were now shipping down the passage; the stickers on the aluminium containers labelling the mystery meal under the pretence of bangers and mash.

“Get 20% off our duty-free perfumes – The perfect gift for any relative.”

No, not even a nice splash of cologne could have covered that burnt smell. Six months had passed since returning from Rio and we were still waiting on a response from Rick. Perhaps the favela underworld had finally sucked him in for good, or perhaps his 'pay to cum' philosophy had finally drained the South American piggy bank. Even as I write this I like to envision that he is still living the high life in Rio however, coding by day and running a pimp ring by night. Coming into land I made a note to hang out in run-down eateries more often. They’re still a step up from airline food.

Heading to my apartment upon arrival at Budapest Airport, I was greeted by two affectionate camp men dressed in painters’ rags. They kindly gave me a tour of the building and laid down some ground rules. This had been my first time using Airbnb and I wasn’t too sure what to expect from my hosts. Jarno was tall, tanned, and lacking eyebrows, whilst his companion was short and stumpy with a greased back pony-tail. As we walked around I poked my nose in some of the kitchen units and was surprised to see that in place of the usual crockery were just rows and rows of jam jars; stacked high with different flavours.

Jarno explained that renting out apartments in the Pest neighbourhood was his primary job, but that jam production was where his true passion lay. He made so much of it, in fact, that there was no room left in his own house to store the stock whilst waiting for it to be sold. Using a money-spinning marketing strategy seemingly taken straight from the pages of the Business for Dummies Handbook he had, therefore, made the decision to line his guests’ cupboards with as much of the produce as possible in a small hope that they would buy some and cut-out the middle-man. I applauded his honesty and entrepreneurship. Once everything had been pointed out the pair then plotted the main city attractions on a map before leaving me to head out for a stroll. A cultural weekend in Hungary awaited, or so I thought.

I glanced up from a meal of grilled zucchini pancakes four hours later to see my gay landlords hammering on the restaurant window, grinning profusely and waving fast enough to generate the same amount of energy as a small wind farm. Kiskakukk was their favourite restaurant in the city and they were clearly pleased I’d taken their dining recommendation on board. Acknowledging the food with a thumbs up and rub of the belly I washed down the main course with 4 pints of beer, settled the tab and wandered out to explore the nightlife of the city’s ‘ruin bar’ district.

Quizzing friends before my trip on where best to go out in Pest the preponderant answer had always been “Grandio Party Hostel,” and any residence that carried taglines such as ‘The Party Animal’s Playground’ and ‘You Can Sleep When You’re Dead’ sure does seem a good place to start. With some writing to do whilst away it also aided my decision to get an apartment rather than stay there, guessing correctly the peace and quiet I would need at some point might not be readily available in a place which refuses guests over the age of 36 due to its sexual exploits.

I had reached the corner of Andrassy Avenue and Nagi Diofa Ucta before realising I’d stupidly left the map on the kitchen table, so stopped the next person I saw to get directions.

“Excuse me, could you possibly tell me how to get to Grandio Party Hostel please?” I asked clearly and politely.

“Ah, I don’t know where this Grandio you speak of is, but that shouldn’t matter,” replied the middle-aged woman. “There is a hotel right here with vacant rooms. What are you looking for? Sex? Or perhaps just a blowjob?”

It doesn’t say much for my judge of character that I’d managed to stop the sole prostitute within a mile radius. Perhaps a little too much of Rick’s enthusiasm had rubbed off on me. Bumbling a confused excuse I hurried away, merry from the alcohol but still no closer to becoming a ‘party animal’. Along the street, I found was a much more respectable female perched on the wall outside a bar with a cigarette in hand. My same question was again answered in vain, however. I began to wonder whether the hostel actually existed or whether it was just an elaborate Chinese Whisper that had been packaged as some urban legend and passed down from backpacker to backpacker.

We got chatting and Esme was shocked to hear I hadn’t yet tried Palinka, a habitual Hungarian fruit brandy. My protests that I’d only been in the country for about six hours were quashed as she proceeded to pull me downstairs into the establishment where her boyfriend Paul was in discussion with the owner. Esme made the introductions and after a couple of quickly exchanged words in Hungarian the owner went to the bar and poured me a pint and one measure of the potent, clear, traditional beverage.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked, not too sure how far my Forint notes would get me.

“It’s on the house, my friend. Welcome to Budapest.”

“Legend,” I smiled, raising the shot glass in a toast before knocking it back.

The chat began to flow as Esme and I sunk further sporadic drinks. Paul, the designated driver on this previously desultory Thursday night, told me of their recent journey to the UK to watch the Manchester Derby and delightfully produced a crisp Scottish bank note from his wallet that had been kept as a souvenir from their foray across the Channel. Explaining to him my failed quest to find the Mecca of all party hostels he started to snigger.

Grandio is literally 200m down the street. You must have walked past it to get here.”

“Shut up?” I responded, mouth ajar.

“True story. I’ll show you if you like, my car is parked a couple of streets back so we are heading in that direction anyway.”

Wandering out into the fresh air we made our way along the dug up street, severe road-works clearly in progress but having been abandoned for the evening. I continued to chat away to the couple when smack, out of nowhere I found myself face first in the concrete; dazed and confused as if I’d just been on the receiving end of a Mike Tyson right hook.

Dusting off, I looked up to see Paul and Esme in fits of laughter. Not paying attention to where I had been going I’d fallen straight over a manhole cover, ripping my jeans and tearing the lining of my puffer jacket. As the stuffing oozed out I quickly began to resemble a wounded teddy bear. Health & Safety laws were clearly not as stringent in this part of the world, cordoning off holes and hazards a seemingly unnecessary precaution. Lifting me back onto my feet Paul pointed towards a large black gated doorway.

“That’s it there mate,” he said.

Now, in my defence, Grandio had to be one of the worst signposted hostels on the planet. Apart from the equally dark lettering above the entrance, there was nothing to indicate that the door led anywhere other than the storage facility of a shop. There was no doubt that it was the place, however. I rang the small bell on the wall with anticipation for the electrifying welcome. Nothing. I tried again. There was still no answer.

“It is 1 am now,” shrugged Paul. “It’s possible that everyone has already left and sprawled out into the bars and pubs.”

“Mmm,” I reasoned. “That could be true. Hypothetically, where would the most likely place be that they’d head to?”

“Goszdu Courtyard probably. I could give you a lift if you fancy?” he offered, sensing the tone of my voice.

I stepped out his car after a short two-minute journey and wished them all the best. One of the things I love most about the randomness of travel is being able to make short connections with warm and amiable strangers who you’d never cross paths with during the monotonous routines of day-to-day life.

Kolor Bar was the first place that caught my eye, not because there were any other foreigners in sight but because of the three gorgeous Hungarian girls loitering in the foyer. We grabbed a table and over some more beers, they laughed at the tale of my prostitute encounter and torn rags. Sofia’s eyes sparkled at me as she exchanged quick-witted words in her strong dialect, but I’d become so shit-faced at this point I could do nothing but squint back at her like I was staring into a solar eclipse. Upon last orders at 3 am the girls sensibly hopped in a taxi and headed home, leaving me disorientated among the ‘ruin bars’ of Budapest. I stumbled outside in confusion and to my blind luck, a rickshaw skidded to a halt at the sound of my S.O.S cry.

“Hey man, can you take me home?” I drooled.

“You don’t really want to go home do you?” the jolly driver chimed.

“I absolutely do.”

“Are you sure?”

“100%. Categorically. Yes.”

“I know a place with lots of pretty girls…” he tempted.

“Okay, we’ll go there first.”

Like an absolute sucker, and after a fare of 5,000 Forint for a journey covering less than 500 yards, I found myself passing through the doors of a seedy strip club; the true dregs of Eastern Europe on show for the nocturnal underworld to see. Plonking myself down on one of the slimy leather sofas beside a scantily clad local the manager immediately bowled over and requested 9,000 Forint as an entry fee.

“Do you want a dance then?” asked the lecherous girl beside me. “10,000 Forint for one song?”

I took a sip of the beer the manager had brought back instead of my change from the 10,000 Forint note. A dance for the same price as the cover charge? What a bargain. ‘Perhaps this night has just turned itself around,’ I thought to myself. I then took out my wallet and was shocked to find it completely empty. Somehow my entire funds had been drained. How was this possible? I’d withdrawn £80 Sterling from the ATM upon arrival. Had I been robbed whilst in such a state of inebriation? I thought the cost of living in Budapest was meant to be cheap as chips?

Catching wind of my broke-ass the manager quickly booted me out onto the street, not even allowing the time to finish the lukewarm drink that was still clasped in my hand. As daylight started to break I staggered in the direction of where my hippocampus thought the apartment to be, muttering the words ‘probably for the best,’ under my breath.

The Brazilian Prostitution Gauntlet

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil • August 2013 • Length of Read: 6 Minutes

The following extract has been adapted from my self-published paperback travel book, Crobs Abroad: A Scot’s Misadventures with a Backpack. It follows my mishaps across five different continents as I get comatose drunk on the Thai islands; kicked out of a Hungarian lap dancing club; kidnapped by the mayor of a Peruvian city; and trek for a week across the Moroccan Sahara. If you enjoy this post, then please visit my online bookshop for more details.

There was a little café on the corner block of our hostel. It was tacky: plastic chairs, plastic tables, plastic. A bald man from a neighbouring table kept glancing over. He was also foreigner at first sight. A true gringo. Unlike most tourists we'd met along our travels however, he was clearly apt at conversing with the locals. Sat opposite was a pretty little Brazilian girl who couldn't have yet matured beyond her teenage years. It was surprising therefore that he was clearly and shamelessly more interested in eavesdropping on our uncensored drivel, chuckling away and paying minimal attention to his date. She sat there stolidly, pushing a straw around her glass; head towards the picnic-blanket table cover so any possibility of eye-contact could be avoided.

“Are you guys from New Zealand?” he called over in a strong American West Coast accent. We glanced at each other perplexed, Screen and Skills both sporting Scottish rugby jerseys and talking about the potential marketing opportunity for importing Irn-Bru as a competitor to Inka Cola.

“Scotland bro. You’re American I presume?”

“Ah, my bad guys. Yeah straight from Cali. I’m down here to enjoy the beautiful woman and the beautiful weather.”

Rick was a handsome thirty-something. A real extrovert with a rugged Jason Statham look about him. A computer programmer who could work remotely so decided to split his time 20%/80% between Rio and his hometown of LA. The Pareto Principle in full effect. Over the previous six years of hopping back and forth, he’d become fluent in both Portuguese and in the customs of the city. If it weren’t for his pale complexion one would have been none the wiser of his real origins.

“You lads hit up the whorehouses yet?” he drawled, changing the conversation in a blasé manner and almost shocked at our lack of response. “Aww, you’re missing out boys if you haven’t. 300 Real (£80) will see you through the weekend no bother. And they’re classy, not the dregs and red lights you’ll find in Amsterdam. It’s done properly here.”

We peered over at his date, slurping on the remains of her smoothie and shifting uncomfortably in her camping chair. Whether it was the topic of conversation or the numbing of the plastic was hard to tell.

“Don’t mind her troops,” Rick laughed. “Doesn’t speak a word of English. She’s actually one of those girls herself.”

The penny suddenly dropped. The uncomfortable silence. The lack of eye contact. Rick was treating a prostitute to dinner.

“Classy, you see? Twice a year I get my mates to fly down to Rio for the week and crash at the apartment. I make them run The Gauntlet for their troubles. You boys fancy giving it a shot?”

The gauntlet, as Rick had so aptly named it, was his idea of the ultimate night out in Rio. A harlotry pub crawl if you will. His pals would hit up five or six bars and an equal number of brothels, the last man standing is the one who…well you get the picture. Originally thinking this was an elaborate joke we played along until it became clear that Rick was being completely serious. He was taking his date to the cinema after dinner and then wanted us to join him on a night of debauchery never to be forgotten. His enthusiasm and passion were winning us over. Unsure at first, we were warming to this prospect, however (perhaps fortunately), we didn’t even have 300 Real between the five of us. Skills was pumped up and suggested that he could get some money wired from home and we could pay him back. This was met by a sharp prod from Endy under the table, evidently entertained by the American but not willing to accept his proposal.

“Come on guys, it’s completely safe. They are all checked weekly and you don't just get a lay for your money. Don’t think of them as brothels, more like miniature Playboy Mansions. You get a robe and slippers, can watch movies, and sip champagne, all whilst a host of beautiful Latinas pleasure you to your heart’s and part’s content. I have to head now or we'll miss the start of the picture. Take my email and drop me a line when you get internet access.”

He handed over a plain white business card with his information, gave a salute, and then left arm-in-arm with his date as we struggled to contain our smiles. A comedic computer whiz with a beaming grin and an addictive personality only succeeded by his addiction to ladies of the night. We e-mailed him the next day out of sheer curiosity. How could one not?