A day in Hamburg: witbier and the Third Reich

Germany began with another free walking tour of Europe. It began over at the Hamburg Rathaus, the German word for town hall, so we walked towards the city center. We arrived early and decided to sit down at a café and kill the time until our tour started. I decided to order apple strudel (German strudel made me think of Inglorious Basterds) and my first beer in Germany.

In the United States I might get disapproving looks for ordering a beer with my breakfast but there were numerous locals enjoying a cold one despite the early hour. Beer in Germany is cheaper than water, and thus I think their societal attitudes towards the brew is very different. In the United States, a beer normally means five o’clock. It means sitting in the hot sun barbecuing or lying on the beach, or out at a bar getting the party started. In Germany, it seems like just something to drink. I don’t mean to suggest that the Germans don’t take their beer seriously (there are so many varieties available that it’s importance is quite clear). It just seems that Germans are responsible enough when drinking beer that it’s not anything close to being taboo.

Our tour guide Ralph was a colorful character. In his lifetime he’s has many professions including tour guide, courier, cocktail waiter, and taxi driver. He led us around to the various sights in the Hamburg city center. Hamburg is a beautiful city but I find myself going numb to old cathedrals and cobblestone lanes. What I really appreciated about Ralph’s tour was his commentary on what life in Hamburg was like through the various centuries. He began his story at the beginning when Hamburg was a small village and continued the tale through its rise as a trading port, the destruction of World War II, and it’s modern revival. I’ve always wondered how native Germans feel when talking about World War II and Ralph definitely answered my question. There’s no shame amongst Germans in 2013. Most of them weren’t alive during the Third Reich, or if they were, they were the ones suffering under the oppressive regime, not the ones oppressing. However, they are fully cognizant and weary of their country’s past and feel that it’s an important to remember what happened to ensure that it does not happen again.

After our tour we settled at a small German restaurant on a quiet pedestrian street for lunch. The restaurant offered a special deal on schnitzel or haddock for members of the tour group. As much as I enjoy schnitzel, I wanted to order something different; a German food that is rarely found in the US. I ordered labskaus, a Northern Germany specialty consisting of corned beef, potatoes and onions that are boiled, minced, and fried in lard. It looks like corned beef, especially in context with the fried egg that’s plopped on top, but it certainly doesn’t taste like breakfast. It was yummy and a finished every bite, but I don’t see myself ordering it again.

Once we were settled into the restaurant, our tour guide Ralph bid us adieu and was on his way. Some of the other SASers essentially stiffed our guide, tipping him at the rate of 83 cents an hour, and so I felt obliged to make up the difference. One of my biggest frustrations in traveling on “a college budget,” is that people use this as an excuse to short change people when they’re given the opportunity. The “college budget excuse” is readily given when it’s time to pay the tour guide, who works only for tips, but at the bar there’s usually enough money in that same college budget to make do. Regardless, I paid the man what he deserved and we enjoyed some hours in the warm sun sipping witbier and watching life in Germany go by.

Iceland’s natural beauties

I was rudely awoken by my alarm clock at seven o’clock the next morning. Mornings are nearly insufferable while I travel because I don’t want to miss out on experiencing each new place’s nightlife but I also can’t afford to sleep in until noon the following morning. Hence, each night I eat, drink, and am merry until the early morning, and then a few short hours later I rise again in anguish.

Erin and I packed our bags and brought them to the storage locker because we were checking out that evening, and as I packed the hunger pangs set in. It was now ten hours since my bowl of noodles filled me up and now they were long gone. Have you ever felt that odd stomach pain that results from hunger but makes you feel so nauseated that you almost don’t want to eat? I hope not, but if you have, then that was my condition as I packed. The feeling got worse, probably because of the beers from the night before and because I chose to take a pill on my empty stomach. Erin was downstairs making her breakfast of peanut butter toast when I scurried down the stairs and snatched the bread from her hand. “Sorry, but if I don’t have something to eat right this minute I’m going to puke.” She gave me an understanding look and accepted my excuse, and that is why she is awesome.

We boarded a van in front of the hostel for the day’s excursion. As it drove around to the various guesthouses in town picking up other passengers I was slowly revived by the morning sun and eventually felt human again. After the last passenger was retrieved the driver announced to us that he would be our guide for the day. This was a pleasant surprise, because normally on Icelandic bus tours, the vans pick up passengers and then assemble in a central location where they all board a giant coach bus. Instead we would only be traveling with a van full of people; a far more manageable way to see the sights.

Our main destination was the glacier lagoon, some five hours from the city of Reykjavik. Hopefully seeing the icebergs majestically float towards the sea would be worth this long haul. As we left town our driver narrated points of interest that we passed by: lava fields, a geothermal power plant, greenhouses where Iceland gets all its vegetables from. I was attentive at first but eventually my exhaustion got the better of me and I nodded off to sleep. Fortunately, Erin was wide-awake and snapping away, so I can view photos of all the cool places I’ve passed by while sleeping. We made a couple stops along the way but for the most part we drove directly to the lagoon, hoping to make it there before the site was flooded with other tour groups. Our endurance paid off when we arrived and were only the second tour group on the site (there were nearly a dozen when we left).

The glacier lagoon was a medium-sized lake full of floating chunks of ice. Some of them were only big enough to stand on, and some were the size of houses. As most people know, only a small fraction of an iceberg is visible above the surface, so I can only imagine how big those cottage-sized ice chunks actually are. The variety in the icebergs was stunning. The different striations, layers, and colors made the icebergs each unique. We stood on the shore in awe of a view we’d likely never have again.

Fifteen minutes later we boarded an amphibious vehicle and plunked into the lagoon. The boat-truck drove (cruised? Sailed?) around the lagoon so that we could see more of these natural wonders and appreciate them up close. At a certain point they stopped the engine and one of the guides stood up and educated us on the glacier lagoon.

These icebergs were the result, not of global warming, but of salt water entering the glacier from the sea and melting the ice away. The ice has been frozen for over a hundred years. The black patches are from volcanic ash that fell on the fresh ice and was eventually enclosed in new layers of ice. Some of the ice is blue because it is still completely frozen and unexposed to the air. When light travels through it, part of the spectrum doesn’t bounce back- the light is trapped in the ice- hence making the ice appear blue.

Next our guide plucked a small shard from the lagoon, chopped it up, and gave us each an opportunity to eat some ancient ice. We then puttered around the lagoon some more before returning to shore. Back on the bus, we drove in the direction of Reykjavik. Now that we had witnessed the main event, the driver said, we could take our time seeing some other sights on the way back to the city. Iceland has innumerable waterfalls, a few of which we stopped to climb and walk around. It’s so interesting to consider the contrasts in Iceland. The waterfalls and the constant rain are clear signs of how much freshwater the country has. It also has an endless supply of renewable energy thanks to the geothermal activity and hydroelectric power. But these precious resources do not make up for what Iceland does lack. The cold climate and volcanic landscape makes the ecosystems very fragile and overuse of pasturelands has caused massive erosion and desertification. If only Iceland could trade some of its ample fresh water for fresh fruit! Instead, Iceland must import lots of items that make up a supermarket. Iceland is a land of plenty and few at the same time.

After the waterfalls we stopped for dinner in the small town of Vik, where we walked the black sand beaches and ate traditional lamb stew and an egg burger, a standard hamburger with a fried egg placed on top. We made it back to Reykjavik by nine o’clock. We had to switch hostels that night and there was concern that we might not be able to make the switch and still be at dinner at 10:30. I politely asked our guide if he would drop us off at our new hostel after allowing us to pick up our bags from the first hostel, and after a moment of hesitation he agreed. Upon arrival at the hostel it turned out they were overbooked and only had one free bed in the room. My girlfriend Erin and I are completely comfortable sharing a bed, so we asked if they would allow it given the shortage. They agreed and charged us the one-bed rate for the night.

I know that it’s not good to generalize but anecdotes are important, and I feel like this never would have happened in the United States. There’s much more stringent adherence to the rules, and it appeared to me in Iceland that people were willing to be accommodating if it didn’t come at someone else’s high expense. The tour guide and the hostel manager both bent the rules to accommodate the situation; something that we noticed and were quite grateful for.

After a rapid changing of clothes we headed off for the restaurant and fortunately made it in time for our reservation. We ordered the minke whale appetizer and the horse steak dinner. Erin and I were guarded about trying these two foods that we had definitely never seen in the US before. Fortunately, both dishes turned out to be delectable. The whale tasted like beef fat and the horse tasted almost identical to a beefsteak. Do I think that these foods should be served in the United States? I definitely think the horse should, because the US has plenty of horses and I don’t see why their status as pets exempts them from being food. I would eat the whale again as long as it was sustainable to do so. The minke whale conservation status is currently “least concern,” so I would serve it if I had a restaurant so long as its status stayed there.

After our Icelandic delicacies we headed back to the hostel and crashed after our long day.

Exploring Reykjavik

Our first day in Iceland began with peanut butter toast. Most hostels offer free toast or cereal to appeal to us budget-conscious travelers, and with a little peanut protein, white bread was enough to fuel our adventures. We headed out on foot towards the city center as a cool drizzle came down. Donned in raincoats we barely noticed the rain as we walked down the main road. So far, not much was exceptional about Iceland. The streets seemed very clean but besides that, it felt like being in any small coastal city on a rainy day. A few hours later we made it to a mall and decided to have lunch. The food court was full of foreign foods, as in foreign to the Icelanders, which meant they didn’t hold any appeal to Erin and I. Instead of the food court, we got food from the supermarket. We chose a box of Ritz crackers, salmon spread, shrimp spread, and herring spread, along with some Icelandic cow cheese. We bought two Icelandic beers to compliment our spread and then headed to the food court.

The spreads were delicious and fresh, which was no surprise given that Iceland is an island that once had no industry besides fishing. The beer, however, tasted like seltzer. It turned out the beer was only 2.5% alcohol and completely lacking in flavor. We later discovered that supermarkets can only sell light beer, which means light alcohol in Iceland. You have to go to a liquor store if you want anything that you can actually taste.

We took a leisurely stroll back to the hotel and decided it was time to map out the rest of our days in Iceland. Consulting a myriad of brochures we decided what we were interested in doing, starting with a long list and then making cuts. It was then clear from the brochures that the appeal of Iceland lies outside the city. The volcanoes, glaciers, and waterfalls garner far more interest than the stores and spas, and it became apparent that it is not the capital city that has driven tourism in Iceland from 250,000 visitors a year a few years ago to the latest 800,000, but rather everything that lies beyond.

We arranged for two separate day tours; one for each full day we had ahead of us. After sticking around and learning about pigging, the sport of killing wild pigs in Australia with large knives (you meet interesting people in youth hostels), we changed our clothes and set out in search of dinner.
We found a restaurant on Trip Advisor, but finding it in-person was a lot harder. It was called the Grill Market and was supposedly a fancy place to try uniquely Icelandic food. We circled around the area where the address suggested we would find a restaurant until I gave up and asked a shop clerk for directions. The clerk pointed out that the restaurant was located behind the building, off the street. At first I assumed that this restaurant would be small and quiet, given its hidden location, however, the exact opposite turned true.

We entered into a hip, two-story restaurant complete with spiraling staircase and modern chandelier. Patrons ate in a variety of spaces, ranging from coffee tables that were actually giant enameled tree stumps to bar seating where chefs grilled on an open flame behind glass. The host informed us that the restaurant was actually completely booked that night, so we made the first reservation available: 10:30 PM the next night.

Instead we ate dinner at a nearby noodle joint and then set out in search of a place to experience the local nightlife. There was a street with numerous bars and restaurants on it. Erin and I opted for a bar called Big Lebowski, named after the movie. Like most bars that I’ve been to overseas, the music was all American. We danced and drank as I worked my way through the Icelandic beers. They were all pretty average and none of them had unique bottle caps, which was unfortunate for my collection. Eventually exhaustion got the better of us and we headed back to the hostel. There we found our Australian friend (the pigger) and a German girl he befriended. We had a long and rousing conversation about America, traveling, and conspiracy theories (standard late night hostel talk), and then collapsed in bed.

Kyoto

One of Japan’s must-see destinations is the city of Kyoto. The only thing I knew about Kyoto before this journey is that its where the Kyoto Protocol was formed, the legislation on global warming that only the US refuses to sign. It’s actually more than that. It’s full of world heritage sights, like castles, temples, and gardens. Given that there is a lot to do in Kyoto, its all in different parts of the city, and you can’t just hire a tuk-tuk to drive you around all day for $3, I decided it might be smart to do a SAS trip. Normally I despise them but I decided this one would serve its purpose, taking me to the best spots in the city for the day, worry free. Normally the Kyoto SAS trip was $120 but I bought it off someone else for $40, and so the next morning I reported to the coach buses in front of the terminal. Our guide’s name was Hiroko and she spoke English impeccably well. She made our hour long drive to Kyoto productive by telling us all about Kobe, Kyoto, and Japan. Kiyomizu Temple was our first stop. The temple was beautiful, as they usually are, but more special were the beautiful gardens surrounding the temple, full of cherry blossom trees in full bloom. Our voyage was rather fortunate to catch the cherry blossoms because they only bloom for one week a year, and the timing can be affected by the strength of the winter weather that precedes it. The temple is built by the Otowa spring which Buddhists believe will make your wishes come true if you drink its water, so of course I had to drink the holy water. It was delicious. There were metal cups attached to long poles which you would take and hold underneath the water flowing out of the spring, then pour the water into your hand, and then drink the water. Despite the fact that the Japanese people never put their mouth to the metal cup (not that I would have found that offensive given the things I’ve seen this semester) they still had a UV lamp to put the metal cups in after use to sterilize them. I’m telling you, the Japanese are very health conscious. In fact, as part of going through immigration we had to walk by this camera that read our temperature as we walked past it. I wonder if Japanese tourists are particularly susceptible to illness when they travel abroad given all the care they take to ward off germs in their home country.

Anyways, after drinking the holy water I made it back to the bus, onto our next destination, more beautiful gardens. Everything was in bloom and after feeding some koi I watched a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony occurring in the park. Next, on to lunch. We went to a sushi conveyor belt restaurant where each plate was an astonishingly cheap ¥173. With sushi less than a dollar a piece, I went nuts. I was stuffed with delicious sushi of all varieties for less than the equivalent of $20. Next, we walked around the shops, amazed by all the funky fashion that is popular in Japan. After lunch it was back onto the bus and onto the next activity. We stopped at the Shogun’s castle. The Shogun is the medieval Japanese equivalent of a prime minister, with the emperor being its version of a king. Ceremonially, the shogun is the emperor’s subject, but in reality, the shogun was more important than the emperor. The castle was amazing in that it is made out of wood and yet incredibly well preserved. I’m not sure how the Japanese did it, but they did. Besides all the interesting tidbits of Japanese history, the coolest feature, to me at least, of the castle was the floors. Why? Because somehow they were built to be extra noisy. Not creaky wooden planks noisy, but it almost sounded like a little music box was playing whenever you walked around the castle floors. The reason for this interesting feature is that it prevented any assassins from sneaking up on the shogun unheard. How they designed these floors to make this cool noise is still unbeknownst to me.

After Edo castle we had one final destination. It was the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), which was constructed in the 1390s as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and features a three-story pavilion covered in gold leaf, topped with a bronze phoenix. Unfortunately by this point the rain was pounding pretty hard, and the combination of rain and exhaustion led to mostly apathy towards the pavilion besides a collective response of, “Dang, that’s a lot of gold.”

After the pavilion a number of SASers left the bus and headed out on their own adventure. Like China, we were traveling between two parts of the same country. The ship was in Kobe, but would leave tonight and be in Yokohama the day after tomorrow. Everyone had the option to travel aboard the ship or undertake the voyage overland if they wanted the extra time. Given that my Japan to-do list could be completed while still taking the slow option, traveling shipboard, I decided to spare the expense and remain with the ship, but all of my intrepid peers who chose otherwise, undauntedly departed our Kyoto trip in the pouring rain, making their way East towards Tokyo.

When we arrived back at the port there were still a few hours until on-ship time. Although I was forgoing 36 hours in Japan by taking the ship, I would not waste these 3 more before on-ship time. I changed clothes and headed out again for dinner. I explored downtown Kobe for 20 minutes before settling on one particular restaurant where I had a bento box and a pint of beer. Then, as darkness fell upon Kobe I walked around, the wet ground reflecting the neon-colored glow of all the signs. It was around six thirty and everyone was making their way home from another busy day. The rain had subsided and so had the pace of the day as I slowly returned to the ship for the journey to Yokohama.