Mountains, Muslims, & Misunderstandings

Trip Start Feb 14, 2010
Trip End Dec 16, 2010

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Flag of Austria  , Austrian Alps,
Monday, April 19, 2010

I hadn't originally planned on going to Austria at all but with the travel disruptions caused by the Icelandic volcano it seemed like a good idea to break up the journey from Venice to Munich. Besides, Amy (my Aussie friend from way back in London) had been fairly adamant that I should visit Austria as she had spent a couple of weeks there at the beginning of her European adventure and raved about it's beauty. It was also a great opportunity to explore the Alps, which to this point I had not seen in my travels.

I caught the train in Venice and made the short journey to Verona, (the transfer point for all trains going to Innsbruck) without much trouble and arriving at the station was expecting a train every two hours or so as stated on the internet. The lady at the ticket counter informed me that there was a train leaving in 5 minutes and that the next one wouldn't be for another 6 hours (fewer trains during a transportation crisis...yeah that makes sense) ,if I ran I could still catch it and pay for the ticket on the train. I sprinted towards the platform and stepped inside the door just as they closed, only to find that the train was full save for a couple of empty seats. I settled in for the 5 hour journey and waited for my opportunity to purchase my ticket. The train made a few more stops on the way to Austrian border and 2 hours into the journey was packed with stranded travelers, desperate to get back to their homes. It was standing room only and the aisles were soon full of suitcases too large to fit in the already bursting overhead compartments. Another 2 hours passed and we made our way into the majestic Austrian Alps, the car was hot from all of the extra bodies and people were restless having to stand in one place for as long as 3 to 4 hours. As we entered Innsbruck, nestled in a valley between two soaring mountain ranges, I had still not seen anyone selling tickets. Surely there would be someone waiting as I exited the train to collect my fare. I exited into the cool mountain air and as I made my way to the terminal realized that I had hit the backpackers train ride (anything free will do actually). A ticket that normally would have cost over one hundred dollars had been reduced to the rock bottom price of zero.

I caught the tram to my hostel on the outskirts of Innsbruck and was disappointed to see that it was a sterile, drab, HI (Hosteling International) building that felt more like a morgue than a travelers paradise. My dorm room was shared with three others, Michael (40 something from Vancouver), Sara (20 something from Australia), and Mohamed (40 something from Iran). They all seemed very friendly and I chatted with them for a while before heading out for a bite to eat.

I made my way back to the downtown area on foot this time, and re-entered the train station looking for a restaurant where I could hopefully score some bratwurst or schnitzel. There were few options being a relatively small station and I decided to head into the heart of downtown but as I walked out of the doors a man in his early twenties approached me. He looked like a classic punk rocker with metal studded leather jacket, tight black jeans, and wild multi-coloured hair. He also appeared to be under the influence of some kind of drug. He stepped in front of me blocking my way across the street and began to yell at me angrily in German. "I'm sorry I said," trying to maintain my composure while secretly wanting to soil myself, "I don't speak German." He looked at me confused and continued to rant, moving closer to my face while pointing and gesturing, wildly flailing his arms about. "Holy crap, this guy wants to kick my ass," I thought, bracing myself for the first impact. He unleashed with another string of incomprehensible language before saying two words that instantaneously put me at ease. "Internet Cafe?" I looked at him bewildered and relieved, "Oh my god, all he wants to know is where the internet cafe is," I chuckled to myself. "It's right over there," I said, pointing to a building just down the street. "Aaaaaah," he exclaimed smiling and waving as he walked towards it.

After eating a whopper at Burger King (I needed some comfort food after that episode...don't judge me) it was starting to get dark and I started the roughly half hour walk back to the hostel. As I have stated before I have for quite some time now had a keen interest in WWII history and one of my foremost questions as I entered into the German speaking area of Western Europe was how the atrocities of the war were handled by the people. Were they talked about? Were they swept under the rug? Were they ashamed? Were they indifferent? I walked along a pathway next to river Inn and saw a number of campaign posters next to the roadway as I passed, men and women smiling for the camera just as our own politicians do when it is time for an election. One in particular stood out for me; it was a women in her fifties, blond, with a dark red blazer, with the same photogenic smile as the others. But there was something different about her campaign poster, something unmistakable which appeared not only on this specific poster, but all of her other posters that I passed on my way. Scrawled across her face and torso, in bright red spray paint were giant swastikas. When I finally returned to the hostel I was more than a little disturbed by what I had seen, a symbol so undeniably linked with one of the most evil, ruthless, and blood-thirsty political movements in modern history, etched over and over again by a citizen in a country where it was strictly forbidden. Luckily Michael had also seen the posters and had asked the girl at the hostel reception if she knew what they were about. She explained that the woman in the picture was the leader of a party who was attempting to revive socialism in Austria, and that the swastikas were not painted by neo-Nazi's but by anti-Nazi protesters angered by the fact that someone would think it prudent to rip open the wounds of their countries dark history. Clearly this was a country that acknowledged the past.

The next day I made my around the core of the Old City, admiring the beautiful 15th century architecture with the towering Alps ever present in the background of every picture taken. I had inquired at the hostel about transportation up to the bobsled track in the mountains as I had read they offered rides down the track to tourists during certain times of the year. She was nice enough to call ahead for me but was told that unfortunately this service was not available in the spring, only during the fall and winter. I instead decided to take the cable car to the top of the Hafelekar station, 2334 metres above sea level. The views were absolutely breathtaking and being that it was off season, I had the observation deck all to myself. I sat there for almost two hours snapping pictures, breathing in the crisp, clean air, and marveling at the para-gliders soaring across the valley.

When I returned to my dorm room that evening, Mohamed was lying on his bunk, listening to Middle Eastern music. As we talked I learned that he was from Tehran and had come to Germany 5 years ago in search of a job. He had gone from one job to another over those years and currently found himself unemployed and unsure of what his future held. He decided to try his hand in Austria, being that his second language was German (he also spoke English very well) and enjoyed the lifestyle. Mohamed was a very opinionated man and had traveled extensively around the world. When I asked him if he ever went back to Iran he said that he had been back a number of times since originally leaving to visit his family and friends but had no desire to return there to live. Part of my reason for wanting to go on my Middle Eastern tour is to see what the people are like in that region and form my own opinions rather than relying on the biased and often skewed depictions we receive from the media at home. I decided to go ahead and ask Mohamed what his opinion was of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the controversial current president of Iran, unsure of how he would respond. He scoffed at the question stating that he was merely a figurehead, no different than any other political leader (citing specifically Barack Obama) and that when it came down to it he was not a man to be feared by his countrymen, or anyone else for that matter. We chatted about Middle Eastern politics and I found that he was very moderate. He was also very eager to set the record straight on the ties between religion and politics in his homeland and point out that the overwhelming majority of people he knew, although devoted to their religion, did not hold any ill will towards people with different religious beliefs. My interest in the region only grew as a result of my having met him.

I left Innsbruck the next day having enjoyed my short time there. I was now more eager than ever to venture further north to the land of the Effler family heritage, Germany.
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