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Finding a reservation for the Mayan Apocalypse: Armageddon Tourism

We’ve neglected to believe other Mayan tenets, like rain dances or believing that the first men were made of maize dough, but somehow we’re all supposed to desperately believe that their calendar accurately predicts the end of the world will happen next Friday, December 21, 2012.

Okaaay.

Apparently, this is enough of a concern that NASA has issued a statement saying that it’s not the end of the world. But that’s not enough to stop thousands of media outlets from reporting on it, or from enterprising tourism agencies to take advantage. Even in Serbia.

Hotels near Eastern Serbia’s Mt. Rtanj are booked for the main (non) event next Friday, thanks to the mountain’s supposed mystical powers. British sci-fi author Arthur Clark declared the mountain to be “the navel of the world.” Sounds kind of gross to me, but it’s not gross to the hundreds of people who are trying to reserve rooms in nearby B&Bs. Until they try to use a pit toilet.

Some believe Mt. Rtanj contains a pyramid inside that will somehow save people nearby. If the pyramid-in-a-mountain sounds familiar, it might remind you of the story of the Visok, Bosnia pyramids I wrote about last year. I’m sure Visok is enjoying a brisk tourism trade as well. (Tip: Visok pizza isn’t bad!)

But the Balkans aren’t the only destination for apocalypse tourism. Pic de Bugarach in the French Pyrenees is also enjoying popularity from people who believe that aliens will rescue anyone there on the 21st. The Bugaraches (I’m sure they’re called that) have been fleecing these tourists for all they’re worth. It’s reported that one local is charging $1,870 a night for a four bedroom house. Don’t worry, you can also rent a camping site for $400 Euros. December camping in the Pyrenees IS the end of the world, as far as I’m concerned.

I hope these people negotiated refundable deposits, because the French authorities have announced the mountain will be shut down on the 21st.

Personally, I’d avoid the cold spots and book a room in Chichen Itza, Mexico. Not only is it warm, but the pyramid’s front and center rather than hiding in a mountain. Nearby hotels are already used to celebrations around the end of the Mayan calendar, and have planned fireworks and concerts at archeological pyramids. No word on whether REM will perform “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” there.

Finally, I’m fortunate to recommend Tical, Guatemala based on personal experience. Muz and I first heard of the end of the Mayan calendar on a visit there in 2007. It’s an awe-inspiring site. On December 21st, it’s also reported to be the site of the “New Dawn for Humanity” world summit, featuring Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Placido Domingo, Elton John, U2 and the Jackson brothers. And, based on memory, delicious bananas!

However, we aren’t traveling on December 21st. Instead, Muz and I have planned to go dancing. Like there’s no tomorrow.

Tuesday’s travel chuckit list: the Narcisse Snake Pit

 I’m adding to my “travel chuck-it” list once more with Narcisse, Manitoba, Canada

What’s wrong with Manitoba, you ask? Why, it’s home to the northern lights! And…the Manitoba Museum…and, um…the Narcisse snake dens.

The Narcisse snake dens are the home of the world’s largest concentration of red-sided garter snakes. Tens of thousands of  these snakes spend their winter in underground caverns through the area. In the spring, they emerge for weeks-long mating rituals and to eat the toes of unsuspecting tourists.

Okay, I made up that last part. Garter snakes aren’t dangerous. But tens of thousands of garter snakes are just…icky.  After mating, the snakes spend the summer in nearby marshes. And if there’s nothing more special than snake filled caves, it’s snake filled marshes, amirite? Here’s a video shot in case the stills aren’t creeping you out enough. Check out the sound of thousands of snakes writing against each other:

Technically the snake den is just outside of Manitoba, but it’s still pretty close. So I’ll watch the northern lights from one of these places instead, and leave the snake dens to the herpetologists and heebie-jeebie loving tourists.

Djokovic pays top dollar for his slice…of cheese

Who has two thumbs and likes expensive cheese?

According to The Sun, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic has bought the entire 2013 supply of the world’s most expensive cheese, costing £800 a kilo, or almost $650 a pound. (Meanwhile, I’m too cheap to buy the good brie…)

The cheese is called pule, named after a young donkey. I think. (I don’t even know what a young donkey is called in American english. Cub? Foal?) Anyway, as the name implies, the cheese is made from donkey milk. The donkeys are from Zasavica, Serbia, northwest of Belgrade.  According to my bad translation of this article, it takes 50 liters of donkey milk, taken by hand, to make one kilogram/2.2 pounds of cheese. The milk is prized as anti-allergenic, particularly when raw, as donkey milk has 60 times more vitamin C than cow milk.

I’m sad to say I’ve never heard of this cheese before. Who knew I had been living so close to the world’s most expensive cheese? Who knew the world’s most expensive cheese is from Serbia?

Anyway, Djokovic is going using his year’s supply of cheese for a his chain of restaurants in Serbia, called Novak. The Belgrade Novak restaurant is conveniently located by the Djokovic tennis courts. I’m not sure how many people can afford $650/lb cheese in Serbia, but I’ll make him a deal: if there’s a ton left over, I’ll come by next summer and challenge him to a tennis match. Whoever loses gets a pound of pule sir. Do I drive a hard bargain or what?

Pet Peeve Petak: the Belgrade ban on…Magnum Ice Cream

Ok, I admit it: I’ve got a soft spot for Belgrade. I’ve always focused on the things I loved about the city, because there were more than enough negative misconceptions about it. And yet, after two years of managing this blog, I think I’m ready to log a serious complaint about the white city.

There is, as of this September, NO MAGNUM ICE CREAM in Belgrade.

I was first alerted to Magnum Ice Cream in August 2011. My friend Majmun came to visit Belgrade, and after a long walk we decided to buy the sweet stuff. She looked at various ice cream carts before asking me, “Do you have Magnum ice cream here?” I shrugged, and she extolled the virtues of the Magnum. Thick chocolate! Vanilla bean-flecked ice cream! Every flavor delicious!

I thought she was overselling it, until we encountered it while walking in Sarajevo a few days later.

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It. Was. Amazing.

After discovering the magic of magnum, I redoubled my efforts to find it in Belgrade, only to come up empty-handed. So Muz and I decided to try to find it in other countries. We ate raspberry Magnum in Vienna, Classic Magnum in Macedonia, Almond Magnum in Budapest, Caramel Magnum in Croatia, and even had a Magnum McFlurry at a McDonald’s in Prague. (Don’t judge–they had great wireless!)

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We traveled quite a bit, but it never took the sting out of missing Magnum in Serbia. It was available over almost every border: in Croatia, Hungary, Bosnia, and (I think) Slovenia. It felt a bit cruel. What’s preventing Serbia from importing Magnum?

In retrospect, maybe it was a good thing we didn’t have Magnum in Belgrade. It would have become less special, or we would’ve become a lot bigger. And there are plenty of other outlets for the ice cream itch in town. Now that we’re back, we still keep it as a special treat. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a serious pet peeve. DSC03159

One more for the travel chuck-it list: The Shrine of Karni Mata

I wrote about my travel chuck-it list a while ago, and when I saw this destination to awfulness I decided to add…

Deshnoke, Rajasthan, India

Specifically, the shrine of Karni Mata.

Perhaps you’re thinking, But RHOB, it’s a temple! You wrote about places of worship every Sunday for a year! 

Yes, yes I did. But you know what was never in those churches, temples and mosques?

Thousands of rats.

The Secret of Nimh is…yogurt drinks. Who knew?

Karni Mata was a Hindu mystic born in the 1300s or 1400s, depending on the source. National Geographic notes that at one point, a child of her clan died. Karni Mata tried to bring the child back to life, but was told by the god of death that the child had already been reincarnated as the Hindu faith prescribes. It’s not clear whether the child was reincarnated as a rat, but it was decided that the rest of Karni Mata’s clan would be reincarnated as rats until they could be reborn as humans. (Why no one chose a less…infectious in-between state is beyond me.)

The rats are referred to as children, and given food and drink. National Geographic claims that “eating food or drinking water that previously has been sampled by a rat is considered to be a supreme blessing.” With respect to Karni Mata followers, you know what a blessing is? Winning the lottery. Not eating rat-masticated grain.

Despite the rat’s reputation for spreading disease, there have been no reported cases of plague or other rat-linked sicknesses around the temple. Then again, if these rats are eating gourmet meals, I guess there’s not a big incentive to take a bite of worshipper.

There are at least 20,000 rats in the temple. And that, readers, is 20,000 reasons why it’s on my travel chuck-it list. Going to India? Yes, please. Going to Karni Mata’s temple? Nooooo thanks.

Cekaonica: Belgrade’s not-so-secret bar

IMG_5956Belgrade guide books often mention “secret bars.” In reality, they’re born more out of need than secret. Owners flaunt zoning regulations/papework and create bars in abandoned hospitals, basements, or empty apartment buildings. Some of these, like the Federal Association of Travelers, are exactly what you picture: they’re found through an unmarked door in the basement of an apartment building, and make you feel like you crashed a very civilized cocktail party. Others are tiny, loud apartment-sized spots. Some are actually in apartments, with very angry-or tolerant-neighbors.

They’re definitely bars, but not not exactly secret; many have websites or are commonly shared through word-of-mouth. Still, most people have a favorite “secret” bar, and I’m no exception.

My favorite not-so-secret bar? Čekaonica.

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Čekaonica is located at the top of the BIGZ building, a half-abandoned printing plant that was built in the mid-1930s. BIGZ building is just off a highway in an area that’s part industrial, part late-night clubs, and part Senjak mansions. Typically Belgrade, really.

There’s no sign, so visitors simply walk in the building, past a sometimes-present security guard, and turn right down a dark hallway to find the freight elevator. There’s graffiti everywhere, and enough random noise and sounds that make you realize the building isn’t abandoned–but that the residents may not there legally. And if that’s not enough to make you feel a bit secretive, wait until you get into the elevator.

IMG_5979The freight elevator is my second-favorite thing about Čekaonica. It’s not for the timid, because it lacks interior doors, and it’s not for the uninitiated, because it’s operated by pushing the knob button on the bottom AND the floor button you want. Like a secret code, if you will. And nothing impressed my cohorts (Serbian and American) like showing them a crazy building, a scary elevator, and a secret code.

Until they saw the view.

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This is my favorite thing about Čekaonica. It’s one of Belgrade’s few (only?) rooftop bars. From here, you can see the glory of the fortress, the brutalist architecture of Novi Beograd, or the seediness of the train yard. It’s the perfect spot to watch the sunset with a glass of wine and listen to live jazz. Because that’s right readers, it gets even better: Čekaonica is a jazz club.

The bar, I’m told, got its name (“waiting room”) because there’s a recording studio and jam space in the lower levels of BIGZ. Musicians would hang out on the roof while waiting for their turn to play, an enterprising person decided to put a bar up there, and Čekaonica was officially (unofficially?) in business. While this place isn’t so secret anymore, it manages to feel low-key. That is, until the new “secret” club next door starts blasting the bass at 1am.

Čekaonica is open from 10am-2am, and is located at the top of the BIGZ building. I don’t have the address, but ask for the BIGZ building and any taxi driver should take you there. You can find the bar’s Facebook page HERE.

30 Posts in 30 Days

30 posts in 30 days–completed! Now I have free time to stare at blobs of paint on walls, like this guy:

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This mural is on one of my favorite Belgrade walks: Kneza Mihailova to Kalemegan Fortress.

I’ll keep up the blog (pinky swear), but not every day. I’m shooting for a Monday-Wednesday-Friday post schedule. Thank you to all the readers and commenters who kept me going, and for introducing me to your blogs for inspiration. Happy Friday to all, and super happy Friday to my fellow NaBloPoMo participants.