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  • thatfuturebum

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

By 2021, I had fully settled into the new normal of eastern European lifestyle. In mid July, I traded Serbia for Romania. At this point into the pandemic, there were only a handful of countries that didn’t require quarantine on arrival or have other strict measures in place. This was an extremely fluid list that could drastically change on a dime. And it did, frequently. After crossing paths with more and more travelers during that time, I came to a realization. Regardless of our travel plans, we were all on the same trajectory. With the advent of a society being flown at half mast, arose an unspoken covid trail. By default, we were all adapting in real time to an unfamiliar landscape. Over drinks, we would share travel tips and rattle off countries that were recently opened to tourism, as well as others that had just closed their gates. Looking back, the entire scene was very Mad Maxian. It seems now, we would all like to collectively pretend as if nothing happened. A fleeting moment in global trauma bonding. As I write this now, I do not feel as if the pandemic ever truly ended. We all certainly went through varying states of loneliness and experienced trauma of our own. Maybe we can address it properly at some point, but currently, the focus on getting "back to normal" outweighs any time for reflection. And who could blame us? Alright friends! Enough of all that. Let’s get into the land of vampires during covid times, shall we?

Red, White & Bloody

Growing up in the states, the idea of Transylvania being an actual place on planet earth seemed almost unheard of. One of my all-time favorite video games as a child was Castlevania, released in the mid 80s via the first Nintendo console. In the game, you play as Simon Belmont. Simon comes from a long line of vampire slayers and carries a whip twice his size as his weapon of choice. Traversing Dracula’s castle, you proceed to take on an onslaught of mediocre vampires. Eventually, reaching the main undead ghoul himself at the end of the game. One of the most basic of video game tropes for certain, but the aesthetics of Castlevania remain iconic to this day. Don’t even get me started on the Blade film franchise. There probably wasn’t a single teenage boy in America that wouldn’t have given anything to be Wesley Snipes, circa 98. The commodification of Transylvania was so deep in the American psyche, it even tapped into the breakfast cereal market. Of course, I’m referring to Count Chocula, which was more or less an all chocolate version of Lucky Charms. The cover of the box boasted a cartoonishly goofy Dracula, peering into a bowl of spooky processed sugar and milk. Notably, he repped a dull set of buck teeth that lunged out from a silly grin. This was no doubt a successful marketing ploy to defang the villain for all the nagging children in the breakfast aisle, pulling at their parent’s pant leg. All this to say, when I look back on how the US portrayed Transylvania, it's a bit cringeworthy.

Bucharest Maneuvering

Cut to my very first meal after touching down in the capital of Romania. You guessed it. A vampire themed restaurant called iDracula. The entire aesthetic was the equivalent of an Olive Garden chain, if their slogan was “When you’re here, we suckin’ that blood.” Medieval regalia hung in castle window carve outs on the walls. Blood red colored table cloths rested over rustic wooden tables, with matching casket-esque cushioned chairs. The only item missing was a mini “wooden stake” toothpick for after the meal. I can’t really blame them for capitalizing on all the vampire fanfare. After all, it is one of the more badass cultural mainstays that a country could have under its belt. Even if it is fictional window dressing, draped over an actual historical figure. The embarrassment I felt over how cartoonishly America had approached their culture prior to getting into Romania, instantly washed away after realizing how much it is very much embraced and celebrated by Romanians. Flipping through the menu, I squinted to make out the Olde English font. One dish in particular jumped out at me: The Wild Boar steak with Hribi, or Romanian style mushroom porcini. I’d never tried wild boar, so I figured, what the hell? I ordered the dish, along with a popular Romanian lager, Ciuc (pronounced chewk). After getting excited about trying out my first local beer, I discovered that it’s owned by Heineken. It was drinkable, I'm not mad at it. The wild boar, however, was incredible. Served with a side of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and in-house horseradish sauce, I was blown away. iDracula was only the first of many blood sucker tourism spots that I would encounter in Romania, and I love to see it.

After staying in Bucharest for a month and some change, I began drawing up my plans for moving north. To my surprise, Transylvania is not actually a city, but a region with a handful of cities sparsely peppered throughout the mountainous landscape. On the southeastern side, the Carpathian Mountains (a.k.a. the Transylvanian Alps) draw a natural border. To the west are the Apuseni Mountains, stretching all the way up to the bordering Ukraine. After considering a flight up to Transylvania, I noticed it was possible to travel by train. It would be roughly ten hours into Cluj-Napoca, the old capital of Transylvania. If you don’t mind long train rides, I would recommend this option, as you get to see a much more intimate portrait of the local terrain. There were a couple of factors at play with my decision to kick off in Cluj. One of which, being that it’s the second largest city in Romania. The real reason being that Cluj is home to an iconic and haunted forest that had been on my radar for a long time.

I contacted my host about planning to head north and threw some essentials into a small backpack. During my first stint in Bucharest, I had inadvertently booked an apartment that was considered to be in a Gypsy ghetto. The neighborhood itself was a bit sketchy on the surface, but I never had a single issue with the local folks in the area. The only difficult scenario I found myself in, centered around the elevator in my building. It was a single person elevator and appeared to still be running from the 1950s era. You had to manually pull a slotted steel cage door in order to gradually ascend up into the building. One day, it just stopped working about halfway down from my apartment on the 6th floor. The top of the elevator hung roughly a head’s length above the hardwood surface of the 3rd floor. In a panic, I gave a few shouts for help. The nearby tenants had seemingly already left for the day, as my cries were met with deadening silence. The interior of the elevator was ornate and wholly crafted from wood. Even while fully functional, it felt similar to being in a fancy European casket. I began messaging my host to contact a maintenance person. Finally an hour later, the buttons on the slender elevator lit up as it carried me down to safety. My host had been busy with work and missed my initial messages, but reached out immediately to the building’s maintenance staff as soon as she caught them. Outside of the elevator incident, I never felt in any danger in that part of town. The folks in my neighborhood were mostly Romani Gypsies, that had migrated to Europe centuries ago from Northern India. All of which were nothing but embracing towards me as a new face in the neighborhood. The idea of their nomadic spirit resonated with me far more than the other locals in the city did.

The main train station in Bucharest is called the Gara De Nord, or the Northern Railway Station. Arriving at the Gothic-Stalinist era structure via taxi, I made my way toward the ticket booth. As I entered the hangar like station, it was clear that this was a no frills type of operation. It was easy enough to navigate as a foreigner, so I certainly couldn’t complain. On the way, I noticed a slew of signs with large arrows pointing to an area where they were administering the Covid vaccine. Jumping at the opportunity, I booked a later departure and tried my hand at seeing if I could finally get the jab. For context, I had made multiple failed attempts previously in Turkey, Serbia, and Kosovo. Each country had their own reasoning behind not providing the vaccine to foreigners. In Turkey, you needed a resident’s permit. I barely missed a cut-off shortly after landing in Serbia, where they had been vaccinating foreigners. In Kosovo, they just laughed and said nah.

Look. Depending on how you feel about the pandemic in hindsight, it may seem funny that I was literally country-hopping in search of the vaccine. To be honest, I was taken aback that these governments had no issue, allowing tourists like myself to traipse across their country completely unvaccinated. Not to mention, coming from god knows where. Spoiler alert, it was Asia (gasp!). Need I remind you, the global death toll resulting from the virus had long been extremely apparent and in the news. Google shared weekly death toll numbers that I eventually had to stop keeping up with. I remember my heart dropping into my stomach after reading about the situation in New York, in April 2020. Hospitals had run out of body bags, resorting to using forklifts in order to transfer corpses to makeshift morgues. My intentions are not by any means to trigger anyone by these nightmarish reminders. As humans, we tend to have the memory of a goldfish, especially when it comes to highly traumatic events. Many friends of mine are now downplaying the horrors of the pandemic. Perhaps because they simply didn’t experience the same loss that many around the world had to endure. So, yes. I waited patiently in line to see if I could finally get the vaccine, and wouldn’t you know it? As I reached the front of the line, I was told by the nurse that they could not administer the shot to non-residents. I shrugged and found my way to the platform.

The journey up north was indeed a long stretch, but certainly not without its breathtaking scenery. The train would, of course, periodically give off a bellowing gasp of smoke as it came to a halt. Loads of interesting folks would file in just before the train kicked off again. Some would argue with one another about who had stolen whose seat that they had rightfully purchased a ticket for. You might make a new friend during the trip up and meet for drinks somewhere down the line. People watching had easily become one of my favorite past times in the years that I’ve been lucky enough to experience new places and culture in the ways that I have. Long train trips also gave me a solid excuse to continue a book I’d been long been putting off. My travel plans for Transylvania really only consisted of a beginning point and an end point. Starting in Cluj-Napoca, and ending in Brasov. Everything in between was left vacant by design.

If I were to give any travel advice, it would be to keep things as open-ended as possible. You might have loads of meticulous planning in place, only to arrive somewhere and realize that it wasn’t at all what you thought it would be. You could alternatively fall in love with a town and decide to extend for another week or two. The approach that has worked for me is this: choose a handful of interesting places in said location. If only a fraction of that gets checked off, I would still consider that a win. The truth of the matter is that the bottom will inevitably drop out from time to time. Factoring this into your travel plans might enable you to laugh into the void rather than to throw a fit and be “that guy” when shit does, in fact, go extremely sideways. Another bit of advice would be to choose a primary hub when you plan to stay in a country for an extended period. In Romania, my primary hub was Bucharest. If you manage to find a solid host, make a genuine effort in establishing a friendship with them. Don’t be fake, by any means. But go out on the town and grab some drinks with them. They’ll also have a wealth of information pertaining to the area you’re in, well beyond what google might throw your way. They might even be keen on holding onto your heavier luggage while you explore other parts of their country. I lucked out with an amazing host in Bucharest and they did all the above, enabling me to travel light with a single backpack while I headed north.

Cluj - Napoca

Leaving the Cluj Central Train Station, I stretched my legs and made my way into the old city. The mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture with modern street art gave the city an immediate and unique charm. This is not to say that the capital of Romania is without its own character, of course. I would say Bucharest shares a similar grimy appeal with the likes of New York City. Cluj, on the other hand, has an otherworldly, almost haunting Grimm’s Fairy Tale look about it. Founded by German settlers back in the thirteenth century, they took the name Cluj from the citadel originally used to protect the city, or the Castrum Clus. The additional name “Napoca” wasn’t actually tacked on until the 1970s, perhaps to add a Romanian touch to an otherwise German namesake. There you have it. Cluj-Napoca.

Before I could even think about getting settled into my new home for the weekend, I had to find something to eat. I brought a few snacks on the train ride up, but for a ten-hour trip, it was a laughable amount in retrospect. Spotting a modest-looking restaurant packed with mostly locals, I sat down and ordered a beer with a plate of Sarmale. My Romanian friends will hate me for this, but Sarmale is basically Romanian egg rolls. Healthier, of course, being that it isn’t breaded or fried. The exterior is a sour cabbage, tightly rolled and folded with mincemeat and rice on the inside. Topped with fresh sour cream and paprika, Sarmale is, in fact, the stuff of dreams. I finished up eating and stuck around for another beer. While scrolling through my GPS, I searched for some quick sightseeing that I might catch before sundown.

Heading further into the heart of the city, I arrived at a massive statue resting in the center of Old Town. It was the Raven King himself. King Matthius Corvinus sat in full body armor upon his horse, compassed by two pairs of soldiers with raised flags in his honor. This statue, in particular, piqued my interest, the more I dug into the lore surrounding this larger-than-life figure. Matthius was crowned King of Croatia and Hungary during the fifteenth century, at the wise age of fourteen. Oddly enough, he became one of the most enduring figures in Hungary’s history. For one, he would disguise himself as a peasant to get a better glimpse into what was happening on the ground floor of his kingdom. Because of this and a series of successful battles with the largest standing army at the time (The Black Army), he also became known as the people’s king. The Raven mythology is based on a tale of a raven delivering a ring from Wallachia (modern day Bucharest) to Prague. Via the raven, his mother informed him that the moment had arrived for him to be crowned king. The word corvinus is also the Latin term for raven. So, perhaps we should take the raven mythology with a grain of salt, although I am into it. Either way, I will not take away the fact that he was for certain the Raven King. So why was the king of Hungary and Croatia set as a mainstay monument in the heart of Cluj? During that time, Transylvania was very much part of Hungary’s territory.

The Bermuda Triangle of Romania

I continued to walk off my dinner, eventually flagging down a taxi as dusk fast approached. Thirty minutes outside the city, a younger couple had rented one of their spare rooms out to me for the weekend. Their apartment was only a brisk walk from what is said to be one of the most haunted forests in the world. Hoia-Baciu, also referred to as the Bermuda Triangle of Romania. The legends surrounding the forest range anywhere from the paranormal to the extraterrestrial. Being that Hoia-Baciu is reportedly over 55,000 years old, how could it have not amassed a few strange tales along the way? That’s plenty of time to get weird. One of my favorite stories that it boasts is regarding a young local girl. At only five years of age, she allegedly ventured into the forest one day, never to return home. Five years passed after her disappearance, when she was spotted walking back into town as if nothing had happened. Not only had she not aged at all, she was also wearing the same clothing that she wore on the day of her disappearance. Upon being asked where she had been for half of a decade, or what had happened during that time, she responded confused, having no recollection of the ordeal at all. This is one of many legends surrounding the mysterious forest.

Another tale of a strange disappearance tells of a shepherd that had once passed through the forest. Leading roughly two-hundred of his own sheep, the shepherd and his entire flock were allegedly swallowed up into whatever vortex sits amongst the crooked trees. Unlike the young girl, our shepherd and his entourage were never to be seen or heard from again. Perhaps now is a good time to note the physical layout of Hoia-Baciu. Spanning merely three square kilometers of land, it's unlikely to get lost here for too long before finding a border and returning to civilization. However, what Hoia-Baciu lacks in acreage, it makes up for in its otherworldly lore. During the 1960s, a flurry of claims began to emerge that the forest was teeming with extraterrestrial activity. Two widely known sightings occurred just a few years apart from each other. First, by a biologist named Alexandru Sift, who had initially visited the forest to study its unique vegetation. And later, by a military engineer named Emil Barnea, who had gone camping on the forest grounds. Both men, respected in their fields, left Hoia-Baciu with bizarre claims and providing photos of what appeared to be a UAP flying above the trees. I am by no means endorsing any of these instances as fact. Nevertheless, having read up on all the mysteries surrounding the forest. I had to see for myself what truth, if any, the lore holds.

It was dark by the time I arrived to check in. Already a long and arduous trip up to Cluj, I was ready to pass out. Making my way up the stairs to the apartment, my hosts had seen me arrive outside and were waiting to greet me. I would be staying in a guest room that doubled as a music room for her husband whenever it was vacant. It was a pleasant surprise to have a classical guitar in arms reach during my stay. Placing my backpack on the bed, we moved to the kitchen and talked for a while. They asked if I had booked the room specifically to visit Hoia-Baciu. I nodded. Most of the travelers that passed through their home were interested in the haunted forest. I received mixed responses as to their thoughts on the subject. His wife laughed heartily, exclaiming that any supernatural lore surrounding the forest was nothing more than a hoax to drum up tourism. Even still, she chose to err on the side of caution and avoided the forest altogether. Her husband, on the other hand, had frequented Hoia-Baciu on many occasions. He mentioned hearing whispers in his native tongue while hiking alone in the forest. The most unnerving aspect for him was the overwhelming sense that he was being observed. The reverence in his voice reminded me to balance my skepticism with a level of caution. His only advice was to stick to a day trip if I planned on going in solo. I agreed, although I had originally planned on making a day and a late-night hike into the woods. With a teasing grin, his wife wished me luck. With that, we turned in for the night.

The alarm from my cell phone convulsed rudely next to my pillow. Was it already 6 am? Of course it was. I wanted nothing more than to sleep in, but I also knew that getting into the forest early would heighten my chances of having it to myself. Stretching a bit, I forced myself out of bed in the hopes that a shower might give me the jolt that I needed. I packed minimal supplies for the trek: a large bottle of water, an umbrella, my cellphone and a charger. For safekeeping, a hidden zipper pocket in the interior of my backpack housed my wallet. It never hurts to add a couple barriers of entry when traveling alone in precarious locations. While the threat of the paranormal carries its own weight, a much more valid concern would be crossing paths with a couple meth-addled fellas wielding baseball bats. Deep in a forest, no less. In the event that you find yourself in a fix such as this, having your wallet in a secret stash pouch could buy you enough time to make a much needed juke move.

Passing through a vacant construction site, I found myself at the entrance to the forest. I crossed over the dirt threshold and entered Hoia-Baciu. The surrounding air was as rich as it was dense. Glancing up at the leafy green exterior of the forest, I admired the effort to which each tree put forth in weaving its tapestry on high. Sky blue glints made themselves known in the rare absence of the luminesced leaves. For a cursed space, it was breathtaking within the forest walls. And just as I had hoped, it was twenty minutes into the trailhead without a soul in sight. I began to come across the oddly shaped trees that appeared in photos I’d seen online. Crooked and cursed in their appearance, I could see how folks might get the impression of something demonic at play. Encountering any strange rustling or voices in this setting would certainly send me flying towards an exit.

I forgot to mention that I did have a specific destination in mind. My plan was to head west of the forest to an ellipse referred to as the Poiana Rotunda. A circular opening in Hoia-Baciu where, for unknown reasons, the trees are unable to grow. Another piece of forest lore tells of Romanian peasants that were murdered in the forest long ago. Paranormal investigators have reported a high level of activity within the Poiana Rotunda, which they believe is connected to the spirits of the murdered indigents. Would I find myself face to face with these temporal specters, reenacting their brutal demise on a doom loop within the rotunda? More than likely, I would not. However, it seemed like an interesting enough focal point for the hike. The terrain began to dip drastically. I hadn’t yet veered from the trail, so I chose to follow it further down. It led me into a mini holler of sorts, which in Appalachian speak, means a dip or a valley in between mountains. Reaching the bottom, I spotted a couple of used burn pits made up of various colored stones. Previously, I’d read that a lot of folks enter Hoia-Baciu specifically to perform ceremonial rites. This could have been the remnants of that, or it could have also been from brave campers the night before. Either way, it wasn’t worth sticking around to find out, so I pressed back up to higher ground.

I was roughly halfway to reaching the Poiana Rotunda. There was still no one around, as I began to hear the sound of sticks snapping and other unsettling movements not too far from the direction I was heading. I thought perhaps it was my mind playing tricks on me, or simply harmless wild life existing in its own habitat. Standing as still as I could, I pulled the bottled water from my backpack while quietly surveilling my surroundings. The rustling subsided, and I continued on the path. Fifteen or so minutes later, someone or something began sprinting through the forest. The sound grew louder as it got closer. My body froze momentarily, while I tried to see what exactly was approaching me in such an aggressive manner. I spotted what looked like three monstrous dogs rushing in my general direction. Possibly more, but that was all I could make out in my line of vision. I could hear them snarling and making heavy grunts as they made their way towards me. Hurriedly, my body shifted gears into fight or flight mode, of which I chose the latter. I leapt over curled branches resting on the forest floor and maneuvered my way around the serpentine trees, completely flushed with adrenaline. Prior to leaving the states, I had begun marathon training. In that moment, it seemed the muscle memory in my legs began tracking once more. Perhaps I was charging towards a ravine, or maybe just deeper into their territory for all I knew. One thing was evident. Their intentions were not at all friendly, and the creatures were still very much trailing me. While I was able to make decent headway every now and again, in my blood, I could feel the sea change in the forest’s overall demeanor. Eventually, I spotted what looked like a break in the forest. Fucking christ! It was an exit! I made my way out of Hoia-Baciu and continued at full speed. Seemingly, I’d lost them, but it wasn’t at all clear how invested the feral dogs were at that point. So much for visiting the Poiana Rotunda. Finally, I found myself in a residential neighborhood. Stopping for the first time to catch my breath, I listened quietly. Only the sound of passing cars on the nearby freeway. What breed of dogs were those? They certainly weren’t anything I’d ever come across, whatever they were.

I purposely refrained from mentioning the incident to my hosts when I arrived back at the apartment. It was more that I didn’t want them to view me as a liability. Back safely in my room, I immediately started looking into the wildlife that resides in Hoia-Baciu. These were most likely not large dogs at all, but a pack of wild boars, or sounder. Usually traveling in a group ranging anywhere from six to twenty boars, with the ability to reach up to thirty kilometers an hour. These are aggressive creatures that can also be highly territorial when it comes to other species intruding on their space. While I didn’t have the opportunity to engage with the supernatural in Romania’s Bermuda Triangle, I was fine with just making it out alive. Sitting upright in my bed, I picked up the classical to play around a bit. I thought about the iDracula restaurant in Bucharest and my first time tasting wild boar. Perhaps Hoia-Baciu was giving me a glimpse into how it feels to be on the menu. Having one more night’s stay in the apartment, I spent my remaining time researching options on where to head next. By train, Sighișoara would take no more than five hours. Still, I felt like there was more that I had yet to see in Cluj. I chose to extend my stay and move closer to the city.

Back to Old Town

I booked another shared apartment in Old Town, Cluj. This time, my host was a young guy named Vlad. We ended up sharing similar tastes in music and a few of his friends played in a local thrash band. Almost instantly, I had fallen into a group of like-minded folks to hang out with and explore the city. Vlad mentioned to me that there would be a big festival that week called Electric Castle. Although all the bands on the roster were well known, none of them were on my radar because they were all based in Europe, which made it even more interesting. He told me that if I was to stick around for another month in Cluj, there would be an even larger festival called Untold. However, there were some strange stories surrounding the festival runners. A large van with the Untold logo would drive around Cluj, picking up people that might be interested in acquiring a free day pass. Inside the van, they would draw a pint of your blood in exchange for the ticket. Which they would extract from you while the van made its way through traffic, dropping you off wherever you needed to go. Apparently, everyone assumed the festival runners had something sketchy in mind for all the blood they were gathering. Out of curiosity, I asked Vlad if they would accept a recent receipt from a local blood bank instead, but apparently it had to be donated in real time from within the van. I suppose some folks in Romania take the vampire trope a bit more seriously than others. Adding to the festival’s lore, Vlad recollected seeing a series of large crystals lining the perimeter of each stage from the year before. The crystals were meant to absorb energy generated by the audience. Rumors spread that the crystals were used for ceremonial purposes after the curtains came down. Sadly, I knew I wouldn’t be in Cluj to make Untold, but it was good information for future reference. Clearly, they know how to party.

Into the

Subterranean Sodium Labyrinth

An hour south of the city center is an ancient salt mine, called Salina Turda. Dating all the way back to the fifth century, during antiquity, it’s seen some shit. The first known written record of the mine dates back to the Middle Ages. It was ultimately shuddered by the 1930s, but had remained active up to that time. Perhaps for safety measures, who knows? During WWII, Salina Turda was resurrected as a bomb shelter and a haven to store war planes. After the war was over, the Romanian government made the decision of a lifetime. They repurposed the ancient salt mine into an enormous underground refrigerator, to house the country's cheese stockpile. Whenever I feel down, I sometimes think about the Transylvanian cheese mine. In the early 1990s, the space was unofficially being used for Halotherapy sessions. This is a type of alternative medicine that involves inhaling salt particles for folks with lung issues. Pseudo-science? Yes. Either way, it’s an excuse to go down into a salt mine and get zenned up. Luckily for me, the Romanian government invested millions of Leu into renovating and reopening Salina Turda to the public as a massive attraction in 2010.

The bus down to Salina Turda was quick and painless. Food stalls lined the exterior of the mine entrance parking lot. Although the weather was perfect out, I made sure to dress warmer for the chilly atmosphere that awaited. Already full from breakfast, I took a mental note to hit a food stall later on. Entering the space, I had absolutely no idea as to the full gravity or scope of the underground cavern. Every square inch of the mine was made up of marbled salt, taking on the psychedelic appearance of fossilized lava lamp swirls. I stepped across a narrow walkway with slender fluorescent bulbs lining the walls. Peering down below, into what could only be described as a theme park that only Phillip K. Dick himself could dream up. In the center of the cavern stood a massive Ferris wheel, gradually carrying patrons up and down its iconic loop. A series of thin black electrical cables protruded from the ceiling. Each one providing soft lighting, via glowing tubes. To my eyes, they appeared more like luminesced versions of the cylindrical containers you might use to make a deposit at your local bank drive-thru. Nevertheless, I couldn’t have been more on board already.

The moment I reached the bottom of the staircase, I decided to give the Ferris wheel a go. It’s not every day that you get to ride a Ferris wheel in an underground salt mine that dates back to the Roman Empire. From the top of the Ferris wheel, I could see all the activity and goings on below. I had chosen quite a high traffic day to venture into the mines. There was a football court, with a handful of kids kicking a ball around. I watched as people swarmed multiple billiards and foosball tables, waiting their turn. Apparently Salina Turda even boasts an in-cave bowling alley and a mini golf course. None of the above piqued my interest, but it was interesting to see what measures they had taken to make this the pinnacle of a revenue generating tourist trap. At 120 meters deep and roughly 70 meters wide, I say go big or go home you salty gatekeeper.

Continuing throughout the mine’s many long and winding salt ducts, I was thrown at how surreal it was. The texture of the tunnel walls varied wildly from tunnel to tunnel. Contributing to the overall sci-fi feel of the cavern, some were coated in a reflective outer glaze. Other areas were completely frosted over, with abandoned centuries old wooden mine ducts, still in place. Just when I thought I might have been lost, I came upon a towering lookout point. It felt like something straight out of Castle Grayskull. If you know, you know. Below it was a yawning reservoir, with a lake of salty water acting almost as a moat. This was the Mina Terezia, or the Theresa Mine. Catching movement in the water, I noticed people in canoes peacefully wading through the depths of the cavern. Centered above the murky waters was an illuminated art installation that guests could pass through, via small bridge systems. All five wooden structures in each installation leaned heavily into a post-apocalyptic, IKEA-esque aesthetic. Illuminated by the same fluorescent bulbs found throughout the other mines, my OCD shadow self nodded in agreement with the cohesive designs at play.

I had two options to make my way down into Terezia. Option one was to go by foot, hoofing it down fifteen stories in a cramped wooden stairwell. Also known as free. Option two was to buy a ticket and take the elevator down. Not to be outdone by the other modern additions in Salina Turda, this was no ordinary run-of-the-mill elevator. In true cartoon villain fashion, this was a sleek chrome container, enclosed by industrial and well-lit scaffolding. An outer glass casing provided full visibility for the tied up protagonist to watch as you rub your palms together, descending into the sodden tomb. I went with the villain premium option, naturally.

Exiting the doom elevator, I passed through a series of wooden triangular support beams framing a small bridge. Myself and other tourists slowly made our way, single-file, onto the main platform. It looked as if the installations had recently been given a fresh coat of snow. Moisture from the surrounding saline water rose up, crystallizing every surface area within the cavern. Aside from the accumulation of salt, the wooden installations had also been rudely scrawled upon in various colored inks. No matter how sacred or pristine a site may be, this tends to be typical behavior among humans. I don’t particularly believe in hell, in the biblical sense of the term. But if there were such a bardo, I would like to think at the very least, there is a dull purgatory reserved for these assholes. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind, when I noticed a bit of scribble in particular that really irked me:

“If you believe in your heart that Jesus is lord and that god raise him from the dead you will be save. Roman 10:9”

Now. Is attempting to proselytize, via defacing property in a fancy ancient salt mine, lazy? Wildly. However, that’s not even what got under my skin the most. How, my friend, do you expect anyone to believe you when you don’t even believe in basic grammar? I swear to god. Moving along.

There was a small ticketing area near one installation where they were renting out canoes. Weighing out whether it might be worth snagging one, I noticed there weren’t any tunnels in Terezia where you could explore. I’m sure it would be nice and peaceful, but floating around in a circle for an hour didn’t strike me as terribly interesting. I made my way back into the doom elevator and up to the lookout point. For a couple more hours, I proceeded to get wildly lost in the tunnels and passages of Salina Turda. The subterranean novelty of it all eventually wore off and instead began to feel more like stagnant, salty air. Besides, I had worked up an appetite. Ready to once again feel the warmth of the sun, I found an exit and resurfaced.

Back in the parking lot, I spotted one of the food stalls that had caught my eye from earlier. Above the stall was a giant sign that read “Lángos Traditional,” with a picnic table backdrop. Lángos is actually Hungarian comfort food, but luckily, history tends to echo far off into the distance. Being once a Hungarian territory, the snack exists today as local Transylvanian fare as well. Lángos is a traditional fried dough topped with garlic and oil or sour cream and cheese. Here, it was the latter and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect victory snack after exploring Salina Turda. Waiting for the bus to take me back into Old Town, I started getting excited for the festival that would cap off my time in Cluj. Before I knew it, I would be on my way to Sighișoara.

  • thatfuturebum

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Moving to Vietnam in 2016 marked my first initial entry into Asia proper. There was no way of knowing just how formative the trip would be in terms of sparking my ongoing love affair with this side of the world for years to come.

Crash Landing In Hanoi

It was around 2am in Hanoi. From my hotel bed, I sent an email to the school that hired me to confirm my safe arrival in the capital city. The mattress was hard as a rock. Leaning my back against the pillows and sitting directly on the mattress, I felt my ass going numb in a matter of minutes. It seemed as though someone had stacked layers of drywall over a set of box springs, then pulled a sheet across the hard surface. I started second guessing my decision. What was I thinking? I didn’t know a single soul in Vietnam. In Cuzco, I was at least able to lean into enough Spanish I had learned from back in school. I had of course jotted down some survival words and phrases in Vietnamese before the flight in, but my attempts to use them at the airport and taxi ride into the city were laughable. The Vietnamese language carries six tones. Six! Mandarin doesn’t even use that many tones. What the fuck was I thinking? I showered and brushed my teeth. Thanks mostly to the jet lag, I slept. The next morning, I awoke and immediately checked my email. An admin from the school had messaged me back.

Hello Morin,

Good morning! We apologize for the late reply. Unfortunately, we no longer have a teaching position available, as our roster is currently full.



The email was equal parts tragedy and comedy. The entire situation felt like a lame Eric Andre bit. It took a few minutes to compose myself before messaging them back. I informed the admin that they absolutely had a teaching position for me, as I had just flown from South America all the way into Asia and my room in Hanoi was already booked for the week. It didn’t matter what the position was. Curriculum building, admin, janitorial. I had signed the contract and taken care of my end of the deal. They messaged back and set a time for the following day to meet and discuss matters further.

I set out into the daylight to get a feel for the new city and find a spot for lunch. I was staying in a popular area known as the Old Quarter. Hanoi was bustling unlike anything I had ever seen, at least traffic wise. Motorbikes filled every square inch of the roads. Not only that, they began bleeding onto the sidewalks, making use of any crevice amongst the chaos. Some with an entire family of four, straddling the vehicle. Two motorbikes drove parallel to one another, balancing a large aquarium. Averting my eyes from the ensuing mania, I spotted a busy Pho vendor across the street. It's important to note that all the tables on the sidewalk were filled with locals. This is the best metric I’ve found when determining if a restaurant abroad is worth its salt. Planning out my strategy to get across, I noticed an older Vietnamese woman stepping into the cacophony of exhaust pipes. With an outstretched hand adjacent to her waistline, the woman began calmly moving it back and forth. Watching her was not unlike watching Neo dodge bullets in the Matrix. She signaled to the hordes of traffic speeding past as they morphed around, providing her safe passage.. “Only one way to learn,” I thought to myself. Stepping into the traffic, I attempted to mimic this absolute legend.

Look, I obviously didn’t die, but my endeavor was far from graceful. I quickly learned that second guessing a single body movement could amount to confusing cyclists, resulting in getting my ass ran over. Later on, I would eventually become comfortable with the maneuver. Complete fluidity of movement, slow and steady. With the patented hand wave near the waist, I made it across and ordered a victory bowl of pho from the woman standing behind the food stall. An array of Coriander, star anise, bean sprouts, thin slices of beef and flat rice noodles sat patiently above a large steel cauldron on the concrete below. Street vendors in busy areas maintained the only sidewalk regions that cyclists wouldn’t dare encroach upon. Another popular staple in Vietnamese culture is called Bia Hoi. This roughly translates to “Fresh Beer” in English. I would discover later on that there was one main local brewery behind the scenes, cranking out kegs for many of the Bia Hoi vendors around the city.

I lowered myself down onto a kid-sized plastic chair at an equally miniature plastic table to eat the noodles. A bowl of small complimentary duck eggs rested in arm's reach next to another bowl of cam sành, a unique strain of orange that grows in Southeast Asia. In street markets you can find a larger variety, but the type of cam sành found at food stalls is about the size of a pinball. From the looks of its thick outer skin, it resembled a baby lime. Breaking it open, I found the guts inside were more of a mild sweet citrus flavor, looking and tasting similar to an orange. The quality of the street food in Vietnam was leaps and bounds from what would've cost three times the amount, stateside. The pho spot was no exception. I took my time eating and scrolling through my cellphone for what else the afternoon might have in store.

Nuances In A Complex Country

Within the heart of the city, I came upon an imposing structure, bearing six looming pillars. Uniformed Vietnamese soldiers stood stoically as they guarded the entrance. Surrounding the brutalist structure was a well manicured green space with wide concrete walkways, purely for pedestrians to meander around. Large red font centered flush above the pillars read “HO-CHI-MINH”. This was the Soviet-designed mausoleum, showcasing the body of Hồ Chí Minh himself via a glass casing. Later on, I would hear in quiet whispers from a few of my Vietnamese friends that it is not in fact his actual body resting inside the glass tomb. After his passing, Hồ Chí Minh was flown into Russia to be exhumed and eventually flown back into Vietnam. Entering the mausoleum, I peered down at the cold outstretched body, completely unaware of the hushed conspiracy theories surrounding the site. Armed guards stood inside, ensuring that no photos were taken of the deceased leader.

From there I went to visit the “Hanoi Hilton.” The ironically named prison turned museum, originally built by the French where Vietnamese dissidents were brutally housed. Later on, the same facility was used by the Vietnamese to detain American soldiers. Much was still on display from when the French were the ruling class in Vietnam. This included guillotines, but even more harrowing were the jail cells themselves. Imagine you are sitting in a jail cell facing the cell bars. Your legs are spread wide, via ankle shackles cemented into the ground. Access to a toilet is a nonstarter. Your only means of using the restroom is to simply piss and shit yourself. The unforgiving concrete floor where you sit has a strategic bend that gradually continues downward towards the back end of your cell. When you eventually succumb to relieving yourself many times over, all of that waste then travels down the curved concrete, where it collects. Eventually your back muscles begin to give out. Your only option is to recline back, resting in a pile of your own waste. This was by design. If you were lucky, you might get called away for a quick and easy beheading in front of your peers via the in-house guillotines.

As history will note, Hồ Chí Minh decidedly left the frame during France’s rule in Vietnam. First, moving to France and the UK, Hồ Chí Minh would make his way across Europe under different aliases. In 1911, he made his way to Boston where he worked as a pastry chef at the Omni Parker House. This is also where the infamous Boston Cream Pie was invented just a few years prior to his arrival. Outside of mastering the art of pastry, he began quietly studying the US constitution and its implications on American society. Unbeknownst to many Americans now, Hồ Chí Minh held great admiration for the west. During World War One, he travelled back to France where he met with other Vietnamese revolutionaries. It is thought that this formative time was spent parsing together a melting pot of ideas that would eventually assist him in what would become the official Vietnamese constitution.

Years later, through a border crossing in China, Hồ Chí Minh made his way stealthily back onto Vietnamese soil. In a small cave near the Chinese border called Pác Bó Cave, he spent weeks plotting his strategy to oust the French colonizers. Eventually, he achieved overthrowing and putting an end to France’s brutal reign over the country. Nowadays, the Vietnamese pay homage to their fallen leader via a pilgrimage to Pác Bó Cave. While the US government had originally propped up the French occupation, it was only a matter of time before Uncle Sam himself would touch down in the jungles of Vietnam. This time, however, the Vietnamese captives were now the captors. John McCain was famously held prisoner in Hanoi during the throes of the Vietnam-American war, during which the US POWs coined the term “Hanoi Hilton”. Quick side note. Referring to it as purely “The Vietnam War” as most in the west have been taught to call it, is reductive at best. During the 20th century alone, Vietnam underwent ten separate full-fledged wars with outside forces. Visiting the Hanoi Hilton and the War Memorial museum in Saigon is an education in and of itself that, as an American, I was never privy to within the public education sector.

Shifting Gears

Okay, back to 2016. Sitting in the main office, I faced my alleged employers from across a large wooden desk. Gazing at the sterile surroundings, they explained that they had simply hired too many foreign teachers for any of their Hanoi branches. Initially, I was hired on to teach secondary level students (ages eleven to eighteen). The admin mentioned this and asked my opinions on teaching kindergarten. At that time, I had only briefly tutored adults in Peru. Not only did I not have experience teaching secondary level students, but the idea of teaching kindergarten terrified me. Even my divorce revolved around the fact that I couldn’t fathom having children, let alone to manage multiple children in a classroom. They explained further that it would be in a small port town a couple of hours east of Hanoi, called Haiphong. I would receive all the original benefits stated in the contract, but essentially I would be helping them to open a new kindergarten branch in the port town. It wasn’t by any means ideal, however I wasn’t in a position to be making demands. So I agreed.

For the next two weeks, I went through training with two other foreigners that were also recent hires. I became fast friends with Marko and Zainab. Marko came from the US and Zainab, from the UK. It was the first time for all three of us in Vietnam, so we bonded quickly over being in the “fish out of water” phase. A week into my training, I stood on the elevator going up to one of the classrooms and checked my cellphone. A surprising notification caught my eye. It had just been called that Donald Trump was the winner of the US presidential election of 2016. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Of course it was a topic amongst the three of us during training that day, and a good enough excuse for Marko and I to go out on the town for drinks later that night.

Upon sunset in downtown Hanoi, your options quickly shift from visiting historical sites and exploring local foods into complete fuckery. Nightlife in Hanoi was wild. Loads of foreigners and locals alike filled the streets. It seemed like mostly Europeans on holiday, so a random Tuesday night felt no different from the heavy throes of the weekend. Stretches of bars and street vendors wrapped around the masses throughout the downtown area. Local hawkers pushed their carts through the crowds. Their wares ranged anywhere from inflatable cartoon characters to glow sticks. Streams of white LED lights chased back and forth diagonally overhead the city blocks. The bar Marko and I ended up at was filled with both foreigners and locals alike. Across from us sat a table of Vietnamese girls, probably in their mid to late twenties. Each one dressed to the nines, holding a massive balloon, easily four times the size of one of their heads.

Each girl proceeded to take a long drag from the rubber tip of their balloon, pinching the end tight after a decent hit and ensuring none of its contents went to waste. I watched as one of the girls sipped her beer in a failed attempt to fend off a bout of hysterical laughter. After visibly fighting to maintain a straight face, she finally gave in and released her grip on the balloon. Sending it across the bar in a falsetto war cry that merely added to the loud House music filling the room. Nobody seemed to notice, aside from the table at the other end of the bar where it landed. Our server walked by and dropped a drink menu at our table, snapping me out of my people watching trance state. I glanced down and there it was. At the very top of the bar menu in a typeface seemingly meant for a birthday party, it read “Funky Balloons.”

In Vietnam, it’s perfectly legal to serve nitrous oxide balloons in any given bar setting. From my vantage point, the casual nature of the scene was incredible. There was absolutely no stigma attached to it. Certainly there are bars in the US with hidden nitrous tanks for this very purpose. It just isn’t something that can be experienced freely in the open. Glancing over at the bar, I spotted the large nitrous tank. What better way to stave off the feeling of your own country’s racist and fascistic backsliding than a massive nitrous balloon to the head. We placed our orders and soon after, the server arrived back at our table. First with my balloon. The nitrous filled my lungs, generously spreading an extra dimension to the lackluster house music blaring through the bar’s seasoned P.A. speakers. For a brief fifteen seconds, warm audible tracers washed over my body and everything fell softly into place. The night dragged on into the early hours of the morning. It was one of those nights that even going into it, you could already feel the coming hangover.

Two weeks slipped past in a hurry. While I was feeling settled in the new city, staying any longer wasn’t in my cards that time around. Zainab and Marko would both stay in Hanoi after the training finished up, as they were the last two hires before the school was at capacity. I told them I was going to Haiphong soon and Zainab mentioned the possibility of a weekend trip to Cat Ba Island. The Haiphong port was a quick pass through to Cat Ba via ferry. The three of us agreed to stay in contact and meet back up for the trip. I shoved off in the following days to discover what Haiphong had in store for me.


Getting into Haiphong, I felt almost a decompression in the air. Time moved slower. Traffic was closer to what a main road in my hometown would have felt like. The locals even seemed a bit more welcoming. In Hanoi, the locals had dealt with unwieldy foreigners long enough to the point where they were clearly over it. Which was completely understandable. Housing in Haiphong, however, was a bit different from how you might think about it in the west. I was told initially to look in Vietnam foreigner group threads on Facebook for a realestate agent. After making a single post, the replies poured in from agents. I didn’t realize at the time that there is a specific street made available to foreigners for housing within Haiphong. Văn Cao Street. Not only did it boast decent housing, it also had a strip of bars and restaurants that catered to those coming into Vietnam from abroad. The local government specifically segregated Văn Cao Street to foreigners that had long term living quarters in mind. It was more than likely put in place to avoid the town becoming similar to the melting pot that is Hanoi.

I stood outside the hotel I’d booked as a landing base in Haiphong as my realtor pulled up on her motorbike. She was young and spoke very good English. Smiling, she smacked the back end of her bike seat and told me to hop on. The first location that she brought me to was above a mom & pop’s shop. Walking through the shop to the staircase in the back, I noticed that the owners were not particularly enthused. The apartment itself was a good size, but it was completely unfurnished. Within Asia, it’s normal to find apartments fully furnished. This cuts out the need to purchase household items and appliances that you would eventually abandon when your contract came to an end. I nudged the agent to let her know it was a hard no from my end of the equation. She agreed and assured me the next place would be more to my liking. On the way to the second apartment, we shuttled through what seemed like an endless labyrinth of winding alleys. Arriving at an apartment building, tucked away in residential Haiphong. I could already tell that it was leaps and bounds from the previous situation.

We walked up a stretch of marble stairs that continued upward for six or seven flights. It was a studio apartment for sure, but it had a Queen size western style bed and lush antique furniture. The ceiling had a unique cut-out in the drywall. The center was cut and raised up into the ceiling. They had installed warm lighting around the perimeter where the opening was cut. I began to notice clicking noises from the gap where the drywall was raised. My agent told me that it was more than likely a family of lizards that also lived there. She started cracking jokes about how the lizard family would take care of any mosquitos or flies. A valid point. She diverted my attention to note that this unit was the penthouse of the building. Directly above was the rooftop, so we went up to give it a look. Walking up the steps, we found ourselves in a fully zenned out space. Fresh white linens had recently been hung to dry. In the center, a round marble table sat with matching chess piece like marble stools. Exotic plants lined the edge of the roof. The centerpiece of the rooftop was an impressive bonsai tree. The agent looked back at me with a smile, fully aware that I was sold at this point.

The only downside was that the apartment didn’t have a kitchen. Instead, a large shared cooking area with an island in the center sat conveniently across from my apartment door. Ultimately, it forced me to be more social with other tenants. The more I considered this, the more I realized that it might be a good thing for me. We went back into the apartment to do one more walkthrough as the owner walked in. Probably in his mid 30s. He told me how he had been working for VinCom for years. Clearly, he’d done well for himself. VinCom is a conglomerate in Vietnam under an even larger umbrella corporation that goes by VinGroup. While highly successful, the scope of VinGroup would make any anti-trust advocates in the states cringe. Right off the bat, he came off as very welcoming with me as a new tenant. He mentioned that his sister had previously been living in the apartment. She was currently working abroad, so he decided to rent it out. I pulled the trigger, and he went back downstairs to get the contract. I wasn’t aware until months later that baked into my rent was the money that the owner was paying the local police each month to allow me to live outside of Văn Cao Street.

Monday broke, and I started my orientation at the main Haiphong branch. It was in a large modern office building on one of the top floors of the building. Exiting the elevator, I entered into the front lobby of the school. The room looked almost like a Pixar creation, but with a minimalist aesthetic. Along the back perimeter was a wide stretching desk in all white, with the School's emblem perfectly centered at the focal point. Behind it stood a handful of Vietnamese women, all in their early 20s. They cheerfully greeted me, smiling and asking if I was Tristin. They were draped in bright red uniforms. Formal from the collar to the waist, with the school emblem sewn in at the breast. Completing their uniforms were matching red short skirts and high heels. Over lunch, one of the sale’s girl explained to me that their contract was explicit about this. They must wear makeup accompanied with the short skirt uniforms and high heels to the workplace. These girls were mainly tasked with convincing parents to sign their children up for the program. By “parents” I mean the fathers of the children. The foreign teachers that I met shortly after were like-minded travelers from all over the world, ranging from South Africa to the Czech Republic.

Weeks passed just as quickly as they did in Hanoi and I was becoming more comfortable in my teaching position. Due to the fact that Haiphong wasn’t really a travel destination, the foreigners that did live in and around the city tended to be more tightly knit than those living in Hanoi. I found a motorbike at a decent price, which made it even easier to navigate around the small city. My Vietnamese friends were beyond accommodating and always reaching out to share their culture with me. One night, I was invited out to a local restaurant for dinner. It was a very modest Vietnamese dive spot. The interior of which had photos of various dogs on the wall. I passively acknowledged it, but thought nothing of it at the moment. I’m fully aware that you know where this is going.

The food arrived, and we dug in. The whole setup was family style, with multiple plates of vegetables and meat. I noticed the meat was all dark meat, and I wasn’t able to place its taste exactly. It wasn’t bad, just a little gamey. I asked one of my friends what kind of meat it was. In his pronunciation, my brain heard “duck meat.” Which would make sense in terms of the texture and the dark meat aesthetic. I found out the following day that it was most certainly dog meat that we had eaten for dinner.

This is not something that would be considered typical in Hanoi or Saigon (if so, I hadn’t noticed). In areas outside the larger cities, you wouldn’t have to look too hard to find it. Apparently, when a local restaurant specializes in a specific animal, photos of that animal are displayed on the walls. Later on, I began to notice local spots that hung photos of pigs or chickens. Snail restaurants were also quite common. One of which was surrounded by open terrariums and a rout of snails oozing around the open seating area. By the way, it’s well worth a visit to any of the snail spots in Vietnam. I will say that the sauce they’re served with is doing a lot of the legwork.

A couple of things regarding the dog night out. I have grown up with dogs as pets. I am a dog lover, through and through. While I definitely wouldn’t go out for dog meat again if it were my choice, I’m also not ashamed of it. Food that your culture deems acceptable or even holds up as a delicacy will more than likely be a taboo on a differing continent. In some parts of Mongolia, eating fish is prohibited. Hindus, of course, believe that cows are sacred and not to be eaten. Many religions feel that pigs are unclean animals. In some African communities, eating chicken and eggs is even prohibited. All that to say, humans may be the strangest animals of all.

Laying on my bed, I listened to the small family of lizards click back and forth to one another in the ceiling above me. I began thinking of “home” for what it truly is. A social construct. Aside from cultural taboos and language barriers, I was surprised at just how fast I felt at home in the community of Haiphong. It’s easy to remain in the place where you were raised and wrap that in the packaging of home. I also want to be clear that there is nothing at all wrong with that. My argument is that perhaps any place can be home if you broaden the lens a bit. My cell phone vibrated, pulling me abruptly out of my head and back into my apartment. It was a text from Zainab. She and Marko were about to book a tourist package in Cat Ba Island for the upcoming weekend and wanted to know if I was still into meeting up. I’d been wanting to get out to Cat Ba, but decided to wait until the trip with both of them.

Morbid & Stunning

The ferry ride from the port of Haiphong to Cat Ba was around an hour, depending on which ferry you went with. The faster speedboats were called hydrofoils, although the larger, much slower ferries had their perks as well. Had I known that I could have taken my motorbike along with me for the trip, I would have gone that route. On board was an array of mostly locals. Some, most likely commuting back to the island where they reside from a long day’s work in Haiphong. Others carefully watched over cages with live chickens stacked on top of one another. The ferry also came equipped with a bar. Not a bar in the traditional sense, but an area where you could purchase large bottles of local beer and snacks. Which I happily took advantage of.

As we approached the island, it was far more beautiful and intimidating than I could have ever imagined. I watched in awe as we cut across the emerald sheen of paper thin glass-like waters. A cascading fog greeted an arrangement of sea stacks. Nearby waves raised up proudly, confirming they had spent perhaps millions of years carefully shaping the stone columns. The surroundings felt as if they were manifested directly from Tolkien’s brain, set on a remote island. Underneath the breathtaking backdrop, eerie undertones operated at almost inaudible frequencies. The legend behind the naming of the island dates back to the Tran Dynasty in the 13th century. Three women were killed and cast into the ocean, only to be found later by local fisherman on the island. Each of their bodies had washed ashore mysteriously at three different points of the island. Thus the name Cat Ba Island translates “Woman’s Island.” I’ve searched to find more information on who these three women were, but nothing thus far.

The ferry eased its way towards shore as one of the crewman leapt from the bow onto the warm sand. Catching a thick knotted rope, he began to tie the vessel securely to a wooden post as we gathered in line to make our way onto land. I checked my messages and Marko had texted to say they would be there within the hour. I headed towards the hotel. Resting just on the outskirts of the main beach strip of Cat Ba, the three of us decided to save a bit and share a room for the weekend. I checked in and got settled. Stretching out on the bed, I excitedly played through my mind’s rolodex of what the island might have in store for us. They arrived not long after and we headed out for a bite to eat. Seafood seemed fitting. Cat Ba was the first island that I’d visited as an adult. This might also explain the impact it had on me. I ordered a soup with just about every type of inert marine life you could fit in a large bowl. Floating atop the glass noodles in a cluster were round, bleach white, edible discs. Thinly sliced, with a series of symmetrical holes, this was an exotic vegetable found in Asia known as the lotus root. Not my favorite flavor profile that I’d come across at that point, but I wanted to at least give it the benefit of the doubt.

The restaurant sat next to a stretch of other bars and clubs. After dinner, we shifted over to grab some drinks on a second level balcony bar overlooking the now dark waves. We took turns sharing stories of our experiences thus far at the school that had employed us. What plans, if any, we had beyond our stay in Vietnam. In my case, there was no overarching theme. My move to South East Asia was already one of the most spur-of-the-moment life decisions that I’d made at that point. I considered my options. Heading back to the states to try and piece my life back together in some fashion was certainly one of them. The other being to continue my travels as a teacher abroad and explore living in new countries. At that time, Zainab was an aspiring YouTuber. She had been creating interesting videos related to Vietnam and juxtaposing it with her own British culture. Marko seemed as content as I was in Vietnam, but overall, there seemed to be something clouding our clarity in terms of what we were really reaching for with all this. We settled up our tab and headed back to the room for an early morning ahead. Bright and early, we would shove off to a nearby island called “Monkey Island” to start the day. As you might have guessed, there are in fact, monkeys that reside there. While not native to the island by any means, it was clear their marketing scheme had worked.

Lying on the makeshift sleeping area that I had arranged on the floor of the hotel room, I shot up from whatever REM state I was in. I glanced down at the bright light from my cell phone. It was approaching 6 am. Marko and Zainab were both sound asleep. It wasn’t due to a nightmare or anything to my knowledge that I woke up, but something was definitely wrong. After touching my face, I noticed a large area was completely numb. I crept into the bathroom to have a look. Switching on the light and peering at myself in the mirror, I discovered my upper lip had completely mutated. It made a modern day Mickey Rourke seem tasteful by comparison. For some reason, my upper lip had swollen three times the size of its original shape. That entire region of my face felt similar to when you’ve just been freshly injected with a heavy dose of lidocaine at the dentist. What the fuck was happening to me? At least in the throes of a heavy LSD trip, you can take solace at the shifting topography of your face in a bathroom mirror. In those moments, you know full well that you’re experiencing a temporary hallucination. This, however, was very real. My only hope was to lie back down and try to go back to sleep. Perhaps when the time came to wake up in a few hours, the swelling would subside and I could chalk the entire incident up to a harrowing but brief encounter.

In the time it took to fall back to sleep, it was already time to rise. I laid sprawled out on the floor with a blanket covering my face, pretending as if I were still deep in slumber. I could hear Marko and Zainab pacing happily around the room, preparing for the day. Reaching up towards my face, the numbness was still in full effect. The few extra hours of sleep hadn’t made any headway with the reality of my now massive phantom lip. I had no choice but to show my friends what had become of me. As I sat up, Zainab shouted, “good morning!” from across the disheveled hotel room. Upon glancing down at me, she gasped, “What happened to your face, man?” Marko came out of the bathroom. A toothbrush hung from his mouth as he peered over the bed to see what the fuss was all about. To both of their credit, they refrained from uncontrollable laughter regarding the comical change in my appearance. I told them that I had no idea what was going on. Possibly an allergic reaction. Zainab questioned whether a spider or a small lizard had bitten me in my sleep. Who knew? The only thing I was certain of was that there was no way in hell that I would be making the trek to Monkey Island with them that morning. For fuck’s sake, I looked like an extra from the original Planet of the Apes film. I told them that it was best I stayed behind and found a hospital nearby. They of course agreed and wished me luck. Finishing with their morning routines, Marko and Zainab were off for monkey Island.

The Hospital Cave

The last thing that I wanted to do was show my face to the general public, but I had no choice. I proceeded to take a shower and shuffle through my backpack for clean clothes. Exiting the elevator, I made my way to the main lobby of the hotel. Surely a staff member could point me in the right direction to get this monstrosity looked at. As I approached the woman standing at the front desk, she managed to stay calm, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. I told her that I needed to find a hospital and asked if she had any recommendations. She explained that my best bet would be to walk roughly a block down the road and rent a motorbike. Then to follow along the perimeter of the island, heading north for about fifteen minutes. I would eventually see the hospital up on the right side of the incline. Utilizing my freshly mutated face as leverage, I haggled with the man running the motorbike rental spot. He first started at $12 USD and eventually arrived at $8 USD per day (roughly from 285,000 down to 200,000 in Vietnamese Dong). I drove the motorbike briefly up and down the strip, checking its front and rear brakes, as well as the headlights. With everything on the up and up, I paid the shop owner and was on my way.

For a brief passing moment, I had completely forgotten the predicament my face was in, as I blasted north of Cat Ba on my newly acquired motorbike. The roads were composed of smooth black asphalt that traced the perimeter of the island. As the road continued higher in its elevation, I periodically pulled onto the shoulder to enjoy the view from on high. Following the road up into a more jungle flanked backdrop, I came upon a sign that read “Hang Quân Y Hospital Cave.” Under any other circumstance, I would question a hospital within a cave. In this case, I figured yea, ok, why not? I spotted an opening in a patch of thick brush that appeared to be the entrance. Sitting opposite of the entrance was a quaint family run outdoor restaurant. As hungry as I was at that moment, the hospital visit was my top priority. I carefully maneuvered the kickstand over a large flat stone as to avoid it sinking into the soft jungle soil. Above me was an outstretched staircase that led roughly three stories high. The rusted out steps were juxtaposed by shiny steel guard rails, clearly added on much later.

Approaching the staircase, I noticed there were two other foreigners also making their way up. A Vietnamese flag hung at the very top of the staircase, as if it were a prize to be awarded upon reaching the summit. I felt like a deformed Mario, approaching the end of the level where I had to reach the top of the flagpole to continue the mission of rescuing the princess. My exaggerated lips curled into a grin, and I continued up the addled staircase. After reaching the top, I was greeted by two older Vietnamese men in military garb. Behind them hung lime green vines, like netting from the cave entrance. One man pointed down to where I had parked. He asked if that was my motorbike sitting in the brush. Nodding to them, they explained that proper parking was at the restaurant across the street. Next, they asked me if I had purchased an entrance ticket. Referencing my jacked up lips, I explained that I just needed to see a doctor. I wasn't aware that I needed to purchase a ticket to enter the hospital. Both men began laughing hysterically.

They informed me that this was no longer a functioning hospital, but rather it was a historic site, turned museum. I couldn’t believe it. Of course, it wasn’t an actual hospital. During the Vietnam-American war, they had retrofitted Quân Y cave as a makeshift field hospital for injured Vietnamese soldiers. This was in the mid 1960s, during the escalation of US soldiers in northern Vietnam. Humiliated by the absurdness of the situation, I asked the two men where I could purchase a ticket. They pointed down across the street next to the restaurant. Peering down, I spotted a woman sitting at a small fold-out table selling tickets. Shrugging to myself, I climbed back down the staircase to move my bike and snag a ticket.

Perhaps there wasn’t even a proper hospital on Cat Ba. I was so embarrassed by the entire ordeal that I figured, what the hell. I might as well go on the tour. Scaling the staircase again, I handed the guard a ticket and proceeded on with the tour. After waiting a moment on a tour guide, I realized that I was left to my own devices in exploring the site. For me personally, it was the ideal scenario. Entering the first room, I was surrounded by adult-sized dummies. They were dressed in Vietnamese military uniforms and laying on stretchers. Even more off-putting was the fact that they were all wrapped in transparent plastic. Empty tables sat sparsely among the tightly wrapped, injured figurines. This space was clearly used for triage. It was surreal to see this end of the equation. A direct response to the harm that my government had caused not so long ago. I continued on, deeper into the cave. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember an early first-person shooter game called “Doom.” It was the predecessor of a PC game called “Wolfenstein” that was of a similar ilk. In the game, you would pass through a series of rooms with stone doors that were more or less square cut outs, looking for enemies to fire on. The interior of the makeshift hospital appeared to be the inspiration for the Doom universe. They had fashioned the walls out of cement within the cave, and large square entrances held empty stone rooms. Purely utilitarian light bulbs hung silently, providing just enough light to pass through without walking into a wall. I imagined what it must have been like as an active hospital during the war. Thin beds propping up soldiers that were bleeding out or perhaps receiving an amputation to an injured limb. The energy coming from the concrete interior was a thick molasses, seeping through cracks in the walls.

This was not a museum in the sense that there were artifacts from that era, or text hanging on the walls where you read about the goings on from that event. The rooms were laid bare, with attached hallways stretching throughout the cave. Periodically, a palpable sense of the death washed over me. Halfway down the hallway, I noticed a staircase on the left. Climbing the stairs, I passed the two foreigners that I saw entering the cave earlier. We nodded to one another as they went down the stairs and I emerged into a large cavernous space. It was roughly the size of a decent planetarium, but clearly, this was a natural formation. Stalactites quietly passed water droplets via their aged tips, communicating with the opposing stalagmites on the cave floor. In the very back, I spotted a raised area with a sign that read “Khu vực cấm” or “Forbidden Ground.” Behind it stretched a narrow set of steps carved into the rock that led to yet another square cut out on the stone’s surface. As much as I wanted to hoist myself up and explore, I decided to respect that this area was not meant for me.

I sat down on the concrete floor and began to intone a few bars from a recent song that I had been writing. As I continued softly humming, my voice was swept up into the natural acoustics of the cavern. The tonal quality of the space would’ve been an incredible venue for a chorale ensemble. Time and historical measures made the cavern's natural acoustics incidentally provide what would have cost tens of thousands of dollars in an auditorium or a theater. I knew that I would eventually try and convince the gatekeepers of the cave to allot me time to record in the space. Sitting for a while longer, I soaked up the eerily peaceful air in the room and headed back down the staircase. Making a left back into the narrow hallway, I followed it all the way to the end, where I found an exit. They had made a narrow vertical cut into the concrete wall.

The exterior of the back end of the cave looked like something straight out of Labyrinth. Above the exit hatch was a massive stone wall, covered modestly in moss and vegetation. Connecting seamlessly to the concrete brutalist style build of the outside wall was the natural stone from the cave. Erosion from millennia had weathered the mineral into more of a Hieronymus Bosch painting than a cave wall. Opposite the wall was a viewing point that overlooked the lush jungle waiting below. A staircase connected to the back of the exit area led me gently down a dirt trail. Eventually, I found the road that led back up to the restaurant where I had parked my motorbike.

The đàn bầu man

Touching my face, I noticed that the swelling in my lips had gone down, although not yet completely. Perhaps I just needed some time alone in a cave for my face to get back down to normal after all. Climbing the winding strip of road back up towards the restaurant, I set out to get a bite to eat. Approaching the restaurant, I heard an instrument that I hadn’t yet heard before. Next to one of the tables, a man sat in front of something that looked similar to a pedal steel guitar. However, its main features were completely alien to me.

The base of the instrument was a rectangular, ornate wooden beam that sat horizontally on a keyboard stand, stretching out to about four feet in length. It had a single steel string that was wound tightly and fixed about three to four inches parallel above the wooden base. Which meant that there weren’t traditional frets in the way that you might imagine on a guitar. Instead, I noticed that he had penciled in the frets on the surface of the base. His right hand held a thin piece of white bone, which he had shaved down to about a quarter inch thickness in diameter and mildly beveled at the tip. It was clearly created specifically for the instrument. I assumed by his own hands. Since the steel string was set high above the wooden base, he used the pad of his index finger along with the bone pick to produce different harmonics from the instrument. I watched closely as he pressed gently onto the string, plucking the bone pick upward while simultaneously pulling his finger off the string. Depending on where he was hovering over the fretboard at that moment, determined the pitch.

He was using a pick harmonic technique popularized by guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen or, more originally, Roy Buchanan as early as the 1950s. It’s typically used to add an ornament to a solo riff, but in this particular instance, this was the entire foundation of the instrument’s utility. Finally, I watched him operate the most interesting feature of the instrument with his right hand. Rising at a ninety-degree angle from the far left-hand side was a thin wooden strip of wood that had been affixed to the base. At the bottom of the strip was an outwardly facing wooden bell of sorts. Ultimately, it looked like a horn affixed to the side of the instrument. Using his right hand, he slightly cajoled the horn outwardly with his thumb. If manipulated, one could bend the harmonic note as far as two whole steps up or down. A more nuanced motion could even give the note a manual tremolo sound. This was the equivalent to a mod wheel on a synthesizer, but purely analog in this case.

I sat quietly, listening to him weave a hypnotic melody from the monophonic instrument. The reason that I could hear him playing from all the way down the street as I approached the restaurant was because he had modified it with a pickup and a quarter inch jack. Which he then ran a guitar cable from, into a megaphone nesting outward in between the middle hinges of his keyboard stand. Once he finished playing, I began asking him about the instrument. He struggled to respond in English, but we were successful in establishing each other’s names. His name was Mr. Dinh and the instrument is called a đàn bầu. I later discovered that this is an ancient Vietnamese one-string zither that has been around for more than a thousand years. Traditionally used in Vietnamese folk music, it had first been played predominantly by blind men. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel with the origins of American blues and the blind bluesman of the late 1800s, such as Blind Willie Johnson. I was fascinated by the đàn bầu and wanted desperately to learn at least the basics of it.

Mr. Dinh and his wife were the owners of the restaurant. They were also local farmers on the island. Using a translator app on my cellphone, I discovered that he was interested in learning English. I explained to him that I planned on purchasing a đàn bầu in the following weeks. Whenever I came to visit, he agreed to give me a đàn bầu lesson, and I would reciprocate with an English lesson. I ordered a popular crab broth noodle dish called Bánh đa cua and drove back into town. By the time I made it onto the main strip, my face was back down to normal. Later on that night, Zainab and Marko arrived at the hotel. We closed out the long day, sharing our adventures over a few drinks.

Unbeknownst to me, that first trip to Cat Ba would shape my new life in Haiphong for the remaining year that lie ahead. I would acquire a đàn bầu and frequent Cat Ba island for lessons from Mr. Dinh. Eventually, I would become close with the gatekeepers at the Hospital Cave Museum. The laugh line of how I initially found the site never got old to them. Visiting the large cavern to record would become the perfect escape for balancing my social life and creative outlets in Haiphong. I was even given permission to set up on the raised forbidden ground area. Foreigners passed through the cavern and would sometimes leave tips out of pure confusion. Perhaps they were under the impression that I had been hired on to provide ambiance for the space.

Note: The track “Fortuner” from Tryptamine’s EP release “Jaguar Priest” was originally recorded from within the Hospital Cave Museum on Cat Ba island.

  • thatfuturebum

The immense historical footprint left by Turkey and cradled within its borders cannot be overstated. Spanning ripples in humanity from the earliest known megalithic structures built by Homo sapiens to the city of Troy itself. Threading the needle all the way through the Babylonian, Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, Turkey is incomparable to many of its geographic counterparts in the region. Making the short list of transcontinental countries, it rests in both Southeastern Europe and Southwestern Asia. In a mere half hour, one can take a ferry from Europe, crossing the Bosphorus Strait, directly into Asia. All within the borders of Istanbul. In this episode, I'll cover the first of many chapters in Turkey. Let's get into it.

Leaving Burma

It was September 2020. I left behind the golden pagodas of Myanmar and landed in Istanbul. By now you have more than likely heard about the recent military coup that took place in Burma. Either way, here is some brief but important context as to why I left.

Yangon (the old capital of Burma) had taken me in as one of its own. While it was not my first visit to the country, it was my longest stint at seven months. Sadly, I found myself at a crossroads with the upcoming Myanmar elections in November 2020. Despite the will of the Burmese people on the whole, the fascist establishment that ruled Myanmar with an iron fist prior to 2016 restricted Aung San Suu Kyi from ever becoming president of her own country. According to a constitutional amendment drafted in 2013, if a Burmese individual has a family member or loved one of foreign descent, they are ineligible to hold office. A law enacted specifically for Daw Aung San as her late husband was British. Even further disqualifying, as her two sons are of course...Brit "ish."

Instead, she managed to secure a position as State Councilor (basically Prime Minister) of Myanmar. For all intents and purposes, she has been the beloved leader and, above all, the face of the NLD (National League for Democracy) party since the beginning of 2016. This is not to gloss over the fact that she herself is a flawed individual, particularly regarding the Rohingya people of northern Burma. A long-persecuted ethnic minority within Myanmar's borders. Born of a revolutionary lineage, her father, General Aung San, is revered as the architect of modern Myanmar, though he was assassinated in 1947. Just six months before Burma's independence was fully realized. Aung San Suu Kyi would run as an incumbent against the USDP (Union Solidarity & Development Party) in the 2020 elections. The Burmese military has its own political arm (the USDP). An ultra-nationalist, pro-military party that has essentially created its own caste and refuses to even date or marry anyone without affiliation to the Tatmadaw. The majority of my Burmese friends in Yangon warned me that the elections could easily go tits up. That I should probably leave the country before things officially kicked off. So I did. Side note, they were horrifically correct in their predictions.


It had been six months and some change since the World Health Organization officially announced the pandemic. Still in the Covid thick of it, my options were limited as to which countries would accept tourists, let alone without an expensive and lengthy quarantine. Keep in mind at this point, a vaccine had not yet been developed. After searching multiple government sites online and taking careful note of travel restrictions, Turkey made it to the top of my list. There was no quarantine whatsoever, and the mandatory PCR test that I had read about online was never administered to me after touching down at the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. To be clear, I wasn’t opposed to getting a PCR test. I’m purely pointing out just how lax entry was into Turkey during that time.

Leaving the airport, I took a taxi into the city. I had booked a couple month's stay at an apartment in Taksim Square. Imagine the Turkish equivalent of Times Square in New York, minus the crackheads in superhero garb. It wasn’t long before I fell for the city. The food alone blew me away. It’s impossible to overstate the high level that Turkish food operates at. Even the drunk food is something that, to this day, I find myself craving out of the blue. At the front of Taksim Square, they have a handful of shawarma food stalls that sit side by side. In addition to shawarma wraps, they also serve Turkish sliders that are particular to the area, called Islak burgers. Basically White Castle with a higher quality beef, dipped in a savory tomato sauce. Simple, but perfect in its execution. As I finished eating, I noticed a newspaper clipping on the wall at eye level. It was a write-up on that very street vendor, with a hero of mine standing in the center of the photo. Anthony Bourdain held a shawarma wrap, flanked by two men who more than likely prepared his food that day. His humble nature carried over into the camera lens, giving a half-smile mid-chew. Clear validation that I’d chosen the correct shawarma spot.

Ultimately one of the cleanest cities I’ve lived in, Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis with a population of nearly 16 million. The street trams and Metro transit were so efficient that there was hardly any learning curve involved. To my surprise, Istanbul is very much a cat city. The feline overseers had been well-looked after, provided with food, water, and sleeping areas. They even seemed to approach humans with the same affectionate demeanor as a flock of birds at Disney World. Apparently, this is such a phenomenon that a documentary has even been filmed about the cats of Istanbul. Though I haven’t seen it. With a majority Sunni Muslim population, the call to prayer pops off five times a day from minarets throughout the city. Some with a genuine muezzin reciting the prayer into a mic, while others would press play on a recording that sounded through a large megaphone. Depending on where you were situated, the outcome was a cacophony of dissonant layers reverberating between structures. At times, it felt like something Autechre might weave into a live set. Eventually it all became white noise and my brain would no longer register the sacred spectacle.

Hagia Sophia

Roughly thirty minutes by tram from my new home, sat Hagia Sophia. As a red-blooded American, it’s hard to fathom a structure riddled with such rich history, stretching back nearly two millennia and still functioning to this day. Originally a pagan temple, Hagia Sophia was first commissioned during the time of Emperor Constantine in 360 AD as a Christian cathedral. At that time, it went by the name Megale Ekklesia (or Great Church). Centuries would follow, and time would have its way with the iconic structure. In 1453, an archetypical minaret would appear on the exterior of the once cathedral as it transformed into a mosque. One deity quietly conceding to the other, along with the attire and text of its followers, carrying on as if playing a game of ethereal musical chairs. Sprawled across various sections of its domed ceilings was a unique display of frescoes. Some were plastered over and repainted, some decidedly left untouched. In 1935, the Turkish government decided to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum. This held all the way up until 2020, when it was reopened as a mosque once again, shortly before I touched down in Istanbul.

Strolling through the insides of Hagia Sophia, the energy felt instantly palpable. Locals gathered sporadically around the mosque, sitting in prayer. Draped in a dark slate gray and illuminated by more than a hundred stained glass windows, the interior strikes a rare balance between Islamic and Byzantine architecture. Ornate chandeliers hung so low in some instances that if I were any taller, it would be difficult not to make contact walking underneath. The cartoonishly massive chandeliers were affixed with bulbs that from a distance, appeared as sharp glowing teeth. Personally, I say go big or go home. A friend of mine had told me to keep an eye out for frescoes of angels that hadn’t been fully plastered over from the older cathedral periods of Sophia. These are not the winged cherubs with trumpets, adorned in white garb and flowing golden locks. These were angels as depicted in the Old Testament. From my angle, these ghouls are both oddly engaging and utterly horrifying. The Imam stood and began to cast a hypnotic prayer into the room, while I quietly played "Old Testament Where’s Waldo?" on the upper interior of Sophia.

Out of the roughly nine types mentioned in the OG Testes, I was after one set of angels in particular. Ophanim. Also referred to as "the many-eyed ones" or simply "Wheels", described more so as what extraterrestrial crafts might have been interpreted as during biblical times. These were beings made up of four interlocking topaz-like rings, the rims of which were each bespoke by large blinking eye balls. Imagine being visited by this fella back in the day. Interlocking sentient rings descend onto you, embellished with an ungodly amount of living eyeballs. Constantly rotating, the surface of each ring pressing against the other, creating a sonorous and uncomfortable tone. Then softly, in your own native tongue, it whispers, "Fear not." This is the stuff of nightmares, and I’m here for it. Sadly, I didn’t come across any Ophanim that day; however, I did stumble upon a mosaic that encircled the outer region of a dome, crudely depicting Seraphim. Jarring in their own right, Seraphim were described as mammoth, fifteen-foot beings. The center of which featured a vacant human-like face, from which six crimson wings stretched out in every direction. Allow me to reiterate. A face with three sets of seemingly blood-soaked feathery appendages. You know…an angel? If for nothing else but pure marketing, I can see why the church decided to lean more towards saintly cherubs in white garb with a knack for the harp.

Cisterna Basilica

Beneath Istanbul rest several hundred ancient subterranean cisterns. One of the most important and largest known underground complexes in the history of the city (roughly two football fields in length) happens to be right across from Hagia Sophia in Sultanahmet. The Basilica, constructed during the 6th century while the city thrived under its namesake, Constantinople, is a prime example of an extraordinary architectural feat from that era. While the locals continued drawing water (and even fish) via wells from within their own homes, long after the Byzantine era and into Ottoman rule, the Basilica cisterns were completely unknown to the rest of the waking world. Even those drawing water from the reservoir at that time were unaware of the historical behemoth resting just below the surface.

In the mid-16th century, a French natural scientist and archaeologist by the name of Petrus Gyllius traveled to the city with the intent of studying Byzantine-era ruins. By happenstance, Gyllius overheard some locals discussing a vast subterranean complex nearby Hagia Sophia. After finding the location of the nearby complex, he procured a canoe to traverse the now defunct cisterns. With only a notebook and a lantern, Gyllius recorded his painstaking measurements, mapping out the interior of the complex as he went along. After his accidental rediscovery of the Basilica, he penned what would become an important book to the archaeological community, entitled "Istanbul Bogazi.” Although Gyllius died of malaria in 1555, his works (including Istanbul Bogazi) were published posthumously by his nephew. Sparking international interest and more study into the history of the ancient cisterns. The local government in Istanbul carried out a massive cleanup of the site. This included not only a build up of garbage, but also dead bodies that had been building up for a millennium.

Exiting Hagia Sophia, I came upon the famed cisterns nearby. It felt surreal walking down the stairwell. There was a mustiness in the air that I wouldn’t even attempt to try and place. Reaching the damp underground corridors, I found myself surrounded by the ancient marble columns. Shallow water quietly surrendered around the pillars. I imagined a time when the reservoir boasted up to 100,000 tons of water. The space urged me to look up and around at my surroundings. Because of this, it was easy to miss two stunning relics peering silently from the water’s surface. In the northwestern corner of the sunken palace, two Roman-era statues sit. Each bust impaled by its own marble column. These are the severed heads of Medusa. One head of the mythological Gorgon sits upside down, while the other lay sideways, partially submerged in the water. Trademark flowing snakes extend from each of their scalps.

Note: This image is AI generated, because I am an irresponsible man.

One theory behind the placement of the two mythological figures ponders the possibility that Byzantine architects of that time felt as though Roman-era relics were nothing more than recyclable material. Thus, they were used as such. Another is that Gorgona statues were used during that time as a form of protection for various town structures. Similar to the Chinese Foo Dog guardian statues that acted as protective architectural ornaments during the rise of Chinese Buddhism. Probably the most accurate theory lends itself to an early known Christian practice of placing Pagan-like symbols or statues upside down in a show of religious dominance. The next time you see an upside-down crucifix, just smile at karma properly inserting itself.

The Grand Bazaar

Climbing back to the surface, I jumped a tram and headed towards my last stop. The Grand Bazaar. Built in the fifteenth century, it originally began as two stone structures. Today, the Grand Bazaar spans over sixty covered street blocks and is considered to be one of the world’s first marketplaces of its kind. Its placement within the heart of the Ottoman Empire meant that it was perfectly situated for trade between three continents. Imagine starting with two humble buildings and expanding into an international trading hub, the likes of which had never been seen. No big deal. Items such as silk, spices, hand-woven textiles, furs, and jewels were main staples, and business was booming. As humans do from time to time, the Ottomans got a bit greedy. They started to impose heavy taxes on goods as well as the enforcement of strict religious rule over traders coming from outside territories. The Ottoman Empire’s tight grip within the western region at that time played a major role in essentially ending the network of Eurasian trade routes, widely known as the Silk Road. R.I.P. you silky road. European merchants didn’t miss a beat, however. They got creative and took to the high seas in order to find new trade routes. To hell with the Ottoman Empire, they said. I would imagine. Ultimately, this was dubbed the Age of Discovery.

Maneuvering my way through the covered enclaves of the Grand Bazaar was an experience unto itself. That it remains largely unchanged to this day is a testament to the advanced architecture of its time. While I wasn’t there to shop, that didn’t stop some shop owners from doing all but physically puling me in to see their wares as I walked past. Some of which I humored. I wanted to get a better sense of the living breathing history still drifting throughout the massive corridors. The shop stalls ranged from intricately woven Turkish rugs and nargiles (or hookahs) to bağlamas (a Turkish lute instrument) and Rolex watches. Food-wise, I was able to find much of what I’d read about, just as it was displayed during the Ottoman period. Troves of Turkish delights, baklava, dried fruits, and nuts made up an entire section of the bazaar. An impressive selection of exotic spices were scooped from large bins and sold by the kilogram. Suffice to say, the line between the old world and modern day began to blur.

In the following weeks, I settled more into the city, obeying the mild rules put in place to curb the spread. Fully masked, I dug through crates of vinyl at a local record shop, thinking about the times when I could justify buying something so frivolous. Rather than considering the weight and practicality of every purchase. Knowing full well that every ounce in my luggage was something that needed serious deliberation over, as it meant being hauled around for the indefinite future. Or at least for however long the slow drip apocalypse chose to rattle on for. I wondered how long until a vaccine would be developed and green-lit. What were the odds that I would even be in a country with access to it? The road ahead was paved with invisible ink for all of us during those days. At least for humans. Plants and wild animals, not so much. They were out having an absolute fucking field day, which they deserved every minute of. I’ll be honest. The confusion and fallout of it all was on a certain level, intriguing. Working remotely, I was given the privilege and freedom to explore whatever strange new world lay ahead. I felt I might as well embrace it. Keeping my apartment in Taksim as a landing base, I packed my backpack and headed southeast to the ancient city of Şanlıurfa.


Both Myanmar and Turkey have a special place in my heart. While they're far from one another geographically, these sweet people have been dealing with tragedy on an unspeakable level. Below are links to two amazing charities if you are in a position to help support.

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