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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Czech Up: A Definitive Guide to Seeking Medical Care in the Czech Republic

I recently had the pleasure of adding a new item to my list of travel experiences. I capped off my last day in Prague with a trip to the hospital in the former Soviet State. Nothing serious, just a little strep throat requiring some antibiotics. Should be pretty simple. Go to a clinic, they swab your throat, 20 minutes later you're out the door with some pills that make you better in a few days. At least that's how it would work back in the States.

First I had to check the internet for English speaking doctors nearby. There is plenty of info in this regards from the expat communities. But most of the places I found required appointments or seemed too complicated to get to considering how crappy I felt. So naturally, I thought to ask the girl at the front desk of the hostel. I mean, she lives here. Surely she would know the best way to get this done quickly. Right away she tells me a place to go. It wasn't on any of the lists I found, but she says they are used to dealing with international tourists. English will be no problem. It's a 20 minute walk or use like three different buses. I'll manage the walk as long as I don't have to go uphill too much.

I get to the place a bit out of breath and wishing I had some water, but I found it without any major detours. It's clearly marked like you would expect of a hospital.

I walk up to the front desk and tell the lady my symptoms and point at my throat and she kind of understands and writes down a room number for me. I get to the room and the doctor, if she really was one, doesn't speak any English and seems annoyed by my presence. Back at the front desk, I eventually get a new destination to check out, with no assurances of anyone speaking English. It's right down the street from one of the places from my internet search, so I have a back up if nothing else.

I get there by taxi and find this...


Does that look like a hospital? No. No, it does not. Does it look like a place where I'm likely to get detained for trespassing? Yes. Yes, it does. I go in the welcoming front doors and walk down the spotless stairs. Wait, there's lots of spots of grime and dried gum blackened by dirt and time.

I start looking around the halls and everything looks pretty much the same.

I see no people except a janitor, who couldn't care less about my presence. I keep waiting for someone to come up from behind and ask me in angry Czech, “What are you doing here? Can't you read? Authorized personnel only! I'm calling security!”.

It never happens, but I can't find anyone or anything to make me think I'm in the right place. So I head down the road and find the, according to the website I checked, number one English speaking clinic in Prague. I go up a flight of stairs and find a door with a nameplate that I assume is for a doctor. I walk in and there is a room with a couple chairs, no people, two more doors. While trying to decide which of these uninviting doors I'll try next, a couple of women come out of one and inform me in pretty decent English, yes this is the doctor's office. No he's not here, come back Monday.

Back to the last hospital. I finally find someone that convinces me a doctor will see me soon enough. I started this journey at 11:30 and it is now almost 3:00. I still haven't eaten all day. But I get in to the doctor. Right away he asks what is wrong. No blood pressure test, no temperature taken, no pulse or heartbeat check, or listening to my breathing. I just tell him my throat hearts, it's got white spots, I have a fever, I think I have strep. He looks in my throat and uses not a wooden popsicle stick tongue depressor, but a piece of metal that looks like it had been salvaged from an old polio leg brace or something. He looks for a few seconds and we're done. He tells me I have tonsillitis. Oh, so it's not strep? He looks at me like I'm an idiot. Yeah, you have tonsillitis. You need antibiotics. I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure strep and tonsillitis aren't necessarily the same thing. Whatever, I got what I came for.

The cost of all this rounded to US$: doctor fees $7, taxi roundtrip $13, meds $17.

The takeaways:
  1. Don't get sick in Prague unless you speak Czech.
  2. Don't give up just because the building you've been taken to looks nothing like a hospital
  3. You can make more money as a taxi driver than as a doctor.
  4. There's probably some other gems in there, I'm sure you can figure it out.

Sorry I didn't have pics of the doctor's office. I was never left alone in there and it would have been pretty awkward to snap some photos while the doc was talking to me. But believe me when I say the place looked like it probably still doubled as an interrogation room for the gestapo. Except for the Kermit the Frog doll sitting on top of the computer, of course. All of the people I dealt with except for the first doctor that didn't speak any English and seemed annoyed were very patient and helpful.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Pilsner Urquell Brewery Tour

Sometime in 1295, the city of New Plzen was founded. I'm sure some very interesting things happened over the next several centuries, but let's skip to the most important. In 1839, it was announced that a brewery was coming to town. It took over three years to get it built, and the first brew occurred on 5 October, 1842. In the days before refrigeration, the beer was only brewed in the cooler months, typically October - April. Now, they do it year-round at the same location. The town is just called Plzen, I guess because it's no longer new. I'm surprised George Steinbrenner never tried to change the name of New York to York. Sure, there already is a York in some other country, but nobody cares about that place and the Yankees would have made billions selling all new hats and jerseys with new logos. They probably would have been unstoppable at that point and took over the country in a fashion only Trump and his insane supporters could imagine. 

Back to the beer. If you've ever had a Pilsner Urquell it came from this brewery. It's the only place they brew it, and from what I gathered, it's the only beer brewed there. The company has a few other beers, but they are brewed elsewhere. All of the ingredients come from nearby in the Czech Republic, as they have for over 170 years. The recipe remains the same and the process changed only by advancements in technology. A picture of the bottling facility shows that it is almost completely automated.

The only thing they haven't figured out how to automate is the mopping of the floors. Are you  serious, they can fill a billion bottles of beer a day with the flip of a switch, but they can't figure out how to make a fancy industrial-strength Roomba?

No Laverne, no Shirley. Just a bunch of bottles on a conveyor belt being monitored by computers and lasers. 

I forget which process is which, but here are some pics from the different brewing areas. The copper stuff was for hot portions requiring good heat transfer. The stainless steel tanks were still in a pretty hot room, but for whatever reason did not require the heat transfer you can achieve with the copper. 

They make 18 billion barrels a day of beer in those rooms. OK. Probably not that many, but it was a lot. It doesn't matter that I can't remember the process or the quantities. I have pictures of their secret process and a map of the underground passageways where they store the beer and ferment it or something.

Here are some barrels of beer doing whatever they do in the cold underworld of Plzen. It's like 6 Celsius down there. I was pretty surprised the barrels were open like this, but it seemed pretty clean, I guess.

We moved on through the passageways that were dug by hand for over 100 years and are over 9 km in total length. And we found....more barrels!!!! But these were closed.

And some were tapped and we got delicious unfiltered beers to drink in the cellars of the birthplace of Pilsner. And it was glorious and that was the end of the tour.

Oh, wait. That wasn't the end. There was something about how they  used to harvest ice from the river. and store it in these giant rooms to keep the cellars cold. I don't have a picture and they don't do it any more, so I guess it's not important.

Here's the front gate I was looking for when I went to the tour. I came up to the brewery from the secret back way, so didn't see until after. Just like you. Cheers! Or as they  say in Plzen, Na zdarvi!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Spring Break 2016 Florida or Bust (Cave Diving)

When you think of Florida, you probably think of spring break wet t-shirt contests, alligators, meth, and bath salts. But, there is actually more to the state than most people realize. I recently visited the sunshine state for a different reason all together: SCUBA. Now you’re probably thinking of the Florida Keys, or at least of coastal areas. I was here for the caves of central Florida, though. I’ve been trying to schedule a cave diving course for about a year and a half down there and finally got to get the first half of it (NSS-CDS Cavern and Intro to Cave) completed at the end of March. 

All of the dives were done at Ginnie Springs in High Springs, Florida. Early in the morning before the snorkelers, kayakers, tubers, and assorted rednecks show up, the water is crystal clear. In the channels leading to the caves you might see turtles, small fish, and surely alligators plotting nearby how to devour unsuspecting humans without being hunted down and turned into gator bites and handbags. Swimming through the channel after the morning dive, chances are several people have shown up and most of the turtles and fish have dispersed, being replaced by bikini bottoms and beer bellies.

Most of the dives I did weren’t conducive to photography as I was busy doing drills, often involving lights out. The best lights out drill was probably the lost line search. When diving in a cave, you always have a line running from where you are to the exit. Some are permanent, some are laid by the diver, but all are there so you can find your way back to air. If your lights fail or there is a silt-out in the cave, you will not be able to see one inch in front of your face. Like a blind man at an orgy, you’ll have to feel things out. Basically, the drill works like this: You go a ways back into the cave, the instructor tells you to turn out your light, the instructor spins you around in circles to disorient you, you tie off a safety reel/line and begin searching for the line that will lead you back to the exit of the cave.

This is much easier said than done. You are searching for a line that you were probably only 15 feet away from before the lights went out, but you can’t see anything at all. The cave walls and floors are uneven and you can’t tell the difference between a small ledge and an opening to another passageway. I did a very methodical search feeling along the floor until I got to the wall where I thought the line was located. I headed up the wall until I thought I reached the ceiling (not even halfway) and then worked my way back down, then moved parallel to the wall in the direction of what I thought was the exit (it was). I don’t remember how long it took me to find the line, but it seemed like an eternity. When I did get the line and the drill was over, I turned my light back on and started to reel in the safety line I had used during the search. I was absolutely amazed at what I saw. I had swum over the permanent line, just missed going under it, and basically swam parallel to it for over 100 feet. According to the instructor, who was up on the ceiling and following me with a back-up light to keep an eye on things, my hand missed the permanent line by mere inches several times. All in all it was a very enlightening experience. In this controlled environment, it was also very cool and fun to do. Here are some pics from throughout the dive:

 There were some tight squeezes...

And big rooms where giant bolt snaps lurked.

Some very tight, silty passageways...that I'm not allowed to go into until the next phase of training.

 And some all around cool looking cave stuff.

One of the coolest sights is the rainbow of colors caused by the tannins that get mixed into the water near the Devil’s Ear entrance to the cave. This comes from the water flowing through decaying organic material.

Bikini bottoms and beer bellies...

Unless you are properly equipped and trained, don't try this at home, kids. If you are into diving and want a cool new challenge, though, I highly recommend this course. And if you're not into diving, Ginnie Springs still has a lot to offer like swimming and camping. The people I encountered there were all pretty friendly. Just play by the rules...

Monday, September 28, 2015

My 12 Hours in Beijing

(Editor's note: Staying true to form, Google has found another way to screw up my blog / website. If you want to see any of the pictures, which were shown in their entirety while I was creating this blog, you'll have to click on the cut-in-half versions published by Google. Seriously, I haven't used blogger once since 2008 that I wasn't displeased by Google's service.)

If you've got a 12-72 hour layover in Beijing, here are some do’s and don'ts based on my trip.

Flying from Ulaanbaatar to Bangkok I had a 12 hour layover. For US citizens (and citizens of many other countries, but not all) China will allow a visa exemption if you are in transit from one country to another and your stay in Beijing is less than 72 hours. This seemed like a good opportunity to squeeze in a decent side trip on my way back to Thailand. In the end, I got to see a couple of Beijing highlights, but it was not without its difficulties.

I had two choices to make the best use of my time there. One was to keep my flights as planned and arrange a tour ahead of time. What I was finding on the internet for daytrips to and from the airport was pretty expensive if you were not part of a larger group. So I ruled this option out. The second option was to change my flight so that I left two days later. This is the option I attempted and this is where the problems began.

First I tried contacting the airline I was ticketed to fly on from Ulaanbataar to Beijing, Hainan Airlines. They told me I had to contact China Southern Airlines. Receiving no cooperation from their website with every link going to a dead end or requiring me to enter a mobile number that I didn't have, this proved fruitless. So I decided to change my flight once I arrived at the airport in Beijing. 

Because I intended to stay in Beijing for a few nights, I checked my bag only to Beijing even though I could have sent it all the way to Bangkok. Thinking I would be automatically stamped with a 72 hour visa exemption and given the green light to pass through immigration and then go to the ticket counter to change my flight, I hustled past all of the intolerably slow, would-be immigration line time-wasters, and arrived at passport control first in line. I was immediately sent to another agent because I didn't have a visa. Fortunately there was no line there either, but unfortunately they would only give me a 24 hour pass because my flight was in 12 hours. I said I wanted to change my flight and was sent to a transfer ticket counter down the hall. What happened next still makes no sense to me. The guy said I had to retrieve my luggage because it wasn't checked through to Bangkok before I could change my ticket. Why he couldn't change my flight before I picked my backpack off the conveyer belt will forever remain a mystery to me, but it was clear that this guy had no intention of being the least bit helpful, so back to immigration I went. The first thing I saw was about 300 people in line. Luckily there was still no one at the visa exemption counter and I was able to explain to the lady what the ticket nazi had said. She called her boss over who with no preamble just said, in a rather stern manner, “blah blah 24 hours blah blah,” and walked away. To no avail, I pointed at the large sign that stated 72 hour visa exemptions and explained that I would be changing my flight as soon as I got through to the other side. I took the 24 hour stamp and passed through, happy I didn't have to go back to the main passport control line, but disappointed in the ever-ticking, now 10.5 hour clock I would be fighting against for the duration of my Chinese vacation. Do:  Arrange your flights for maximum layover before arriving. 

I grabbed my backpack, wishing I had checked it through to Bangkok, and headed for terminal 2 from terminal 3. This takes about a half hour. For 30 Yuan I was able to leave my backpack at the left luggage place and head for the tour info counter. There was a bit of a language barrier here, but what I gathered was the tours were scheduled a day or two ahead of time, but they could arrange a private taxi to take me to the Great Wall for an exaggerated price. I hesitated and then agreed because I had little time to plan and do stuff outside the airport and way too much time to stay in the airport. The tour agent then for some reason knocked 20% off the price and I was on my way. Do not: Pick up your luggage in Beijing if you were unable to arrange a multi day stay ahead of time. Check it to the final destination. 

The Wall is an hour away, I would have 2 hours once I got there and then another hour back. I had negotiated an extra half hour at the wall, which would later prove paramount to the success of this mission. As soon as we got to the entrance of the Wall I was led to a ticket counter and had to buy an admission ticket and a shuttle bus ticket. Every time I turn around in Asia, someone has their hand in my pocket. First they tried to get me to buy a cable car ticket. Without even asking the price I said didn't need it; I would walk. Do:  Buy the cable car ticket to get up to the Wall, especially if you have 1.5 - 3 hours at the Wall, or do not enjoy sweating profusely before boarding a 5 hour international flight later in the day. 

My two hours were now counting down and unknowingly, I was almost an hour away from the actual Wall. First I strolled down a street of souvenir shops and restaurants to reach the shuttle bus that would take me to “the real entrance of the Wall”. 5-10 minutes later I was walking, now slightly uphill past more shops and last second chances to get a cable car ticket. Do: Get the cable car ticket

Cable car route up to the Wall

Finally I got to the entrance to the stairs to get to the wall. The ticket taker asked in a rather puzzled tone, "You want to walk?" I spent the next 6-7, 5 minute intervals stopping to wonder just how much further it could possibly be, and why the hell didn't I buy a bottle of water at the bottom of the Great Stairs of China. 

Somewhere near the top of the stairs, I bought a water from a lady who told me to take the right fork to watchtower 6. Much closer than the left fork to watchtower 8. Thank you, concession stand lady. 

Drenched in sweat, I arrived to the Wall with about 30 minutes to hike back and forth, up and down, the Wall. Here is a little of what I saw. 

I climbed the Great Stairs to prove I was worthy to climb the Great Wall. I'm going to that little building you can barely see on top of the hill.

Do you see the Wall behind me? Me neither. Thanks, European tourist lady. 

Do you see the Wall behind me now? Me too. Thanks, guy from Michigan.

It's a pretty cool, long, winding wall built to keep Mongolians out. I flew right over the top, straight from Mongolia.

From here I hustled my sweat-laden self back to my ride to go to the airport and get some well-intentioned, but horrible advice. 

Back at the airport, I still had 5.5 hours until my flight left. I went back to the same tour desk to ask how to get to The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. The lady started to tell me how to take the subway and then just said screw take a taxi. It'll be like 100 yuan. So I do. That was a mistake. Do not: Take a taxi from the airport into the city. Do: Take the airport express and then transfer to the subway. (Unless you have more than two people and are on a really tight budget). After an hour and a half in the taxi, I was about five blocks away from my destination, but had only moved about 10 meters in the last fifteen minutes. I had to get out and walk.

My taxi is parked in that traffic somewhere. 

Here's a little bit of Beijing I saw on my walk. 

Then some girl started chatting me up as I walked. I was pretty sure she was trying to hustle me in a manner I wasn't quite sure of at that point, but as long as she didn't impede my progress to Tiananmen, I didn't care. It turns out she gave me some pretty useful info, like the subway to airport route is super cheap, easy, and fast. She also asked me what I knew about Tiananmen Square. I told her about the protests back in the day and she said she had no clue about that because the government censored all of their news. I wasn't buying that. A couple blocks away, she wanted me to go look in an art store, so I said, "No time for love, Dr. Jones," and fled for the Square. 

I found it and as is my right as an American, I was waved through security past all the Chinese peasants that were likely to start an uprising. 

Once inside, I found all the buildings looked alike and there was a lot more room than I had imagined. Probably enough to stage mass political protests and drive around in tanks. 

Once inside, I was trapped. Everywhere I turned I was told I couldn't go that way or I had to buy a ticket to go into some park. I had a flight to catch, so I turned to go back from whence I came. A man with a bullhorn was pretty adamant that I not go back through the gate I was at. He was small and unarmed, so in the greatest act of defiance seen in Tiananmen Square since June of '89, I shrugged my shoulders to indicate I didn't understand what he was saying and I walked right past him. About 200 meters further on, I was at the front gate, where uniformed men making up for a lack of bullhorns with sticks and stun guns, turned me away. 

I was pressed for time and now had to go back past bullhorn man and into the unknown. I winded my way through the maze of people forced to go the exact opposite direction I needed to go. At one point I was stuck behind a giant wall and a lake, not knowing if there was even an exit ahead of me. 

I went a good 2 km out of my way to get back to the subway, and I grew sweatier and stinkier all along the way. But, I made it. The subway / airport express route took a third of the time of the taxi/walk route and cost one fourth the price. All the signs were in English. And I even had time for pizza and beer back at the airport. You can do a lot in 12 hours, but you can do a lot more in 72. So, if you're passing through Beijing, Do: break up your flights and stay a couple days, no visa required. Just arrange the flights before you get there. Do: use airport express/subway to get from airport to the city and back. Do:  buy the cable car ticket to get up to the wall. And as always, a little planning ahead of time will go a long way once you are there. But if you're like me and just wing it when you get there, you can still get a lot done. Just keep an eye on the clock.