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Day 15 - May 13, 2005 - Venice, Italy to Hopfgarten, Austria

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On my last day in Italy, it was a 6:45 wake up.  By this time, our doorstep had been fixed.  I made the trek to the shower and back to find that our room key was nowhere to be found.  Matt informed the staff that it had been misplaced and they, in turn, informed him of the €15 replacement fee.  I thought that was repulsive and, to be honest, it ruined my morning.  I would've refused to pay it, but Matt and Neil would've had to pick up my slack.  I did, however, voice to them that it definitely wasn't me who misplaced the key.  I reminded them that by the time I returned from the city, they were already sleeping.  The €15 ass raping of a fee bothered me far more than the fact that it was clearly not me who lost the key.  In the end, I paid my €5 and hoped to forget about it.
 
Before departing what was my favorite city of the tour, I ate breakfast with Matt, Neil, Nelson and Karen.  I think it was then that the breakfasts each morning began to get painfully monotonous.  In retrospect, it was an almost laughable adverse aspect of touring Europe for 23 days.  It made me think that if the breakfasts and the key fee were what got to me most, then I was losing perspective of how great of a time I was having.
 
After successfully reasoning with myself and acquiring a more optimistic mood, we set way for Austria, country number six of the tour.  I was disappointed we would only be seeing western Austria and therefore missing Vienna.  It seems like Vienna is regarded as more of an Eastern European city, as it is included in those tours for the most part.  Nevertheless, we were staying in a town of Hopfgarten for the next two nights.  Most people haven't heard of it and none of us really knew what to expect.  I think we were all really looking forward to a relaxing location, because everything since the Chateau in France had been anywhere from fairly to extremely strenuous.  Also, I was highly anticipating white water rafting in the Austrian Alps.
 
Somewhere on the way towards the Austrian border, we made an unexpected stop due to a problem with the coach's EZ Pass mechanism.  I'm sure it's not called EZ Pass in Europe, but that's what we call it in the US, and I don't remember what it was called over there.  Anyway, it's the device that allows you to avoid stopping at toll booths.
 
We made our way down to a river behind the building at the rest stop to kill the time.  Most of us were curious to check out the water temperature, because the white water rafting optional was not too far into Austria.  The water was frighteningly cold.  We began praying that this was a different water system than the one we'd later be submerged in.  Chris managed to correct the problem in a very short time.  In an even shorter amount of time, we were in Austria.

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AUSTRIAN SCENERY

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AND MORE

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DOWN AT THE RIVER

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AND EVEN MORE SCENERY

While crossing the border via the Brenner Pass, the scenery really opened up.  At times, the highway was raised for hundreds of feet, resulting in what was probably the best scenery I had ever seen in my life up to that point.  The contrast of green foregrounds to snow capped peaks miles in the background was remarkable.  Soon after, we stopped at the start point of our white water rafting escapade.  It was an amazing location.  We were in a valley somewhere in the middle of the Austrian Alps.  Snow capped mountains could be seen in all directions.  It might have been the freshest air I've ever smelt. 
 
Those of us who chose to partake in this optional lined up to wait for our instructors to introduce themselves.  Because we had felt the ice cold water just on the other side of the Italian border, the rafting was then significantly either more anticipated or more feared, or both.  We eventually met the instructors and they all seemed to be very personable.  I thought for a moment that they were actually Contiki staff members, since they had the same charisma to them.  They, in fact, were not employed by Contiki.
 
After a quick pep talk, which basically just exaggerated the frigidness of the water, we were fitted into our rafting attire.  This consisted of a wet suit, life jacket, a nylon jacket, helmet and water shoes.  I think we would all agree that we looked pretty ridiculous.  Our tour mates who weren't joining us got a kick out of taking loads of pictures.  Soon after, they left for the end point on the coach and we made our way, rafts in hands, towards the river.

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PRE WHITE WATER RAFTING

Somehow, I was grouped with Matt, Neil, Steve, Yoon, Vince, and Kate.  I don't remember our instructor's name, but he was awesome.  He had this subtle, but extremely effective humor to him.  Also, the way he toyed with our apprehension was simply brilliant.  Someone said that he was "the gondolier that we didn't have."
 
After poking fun of each other for a while, which was all in good fun, we pushed the raft into the river.  The water was virtually freezing.  We would later learn that it was 7 degrees Celsius.  For my fellow Americans, that's 45 degrees Fahrenheit.  The second I stepped into the river, the water penetrated my waterproof wear.  I practically warped into the raft after the first drop of water touched my skin.  45 degrees is unbearable.
 
After we were all settled in the raft, our instructor paused the excitement and the humor for a minute.  He went over some basic rules and safety instructions.  He stated that, under no circumstances, were we to stand up or jump out of the raft.  He then gave instructions on what to do in the event that one of us did fall out of the raft.  Soon, we were back to our fun and games, in addition to some synchronized rowing.  I don't think any of us had an idea of what was in store for us next.
 
I think first, we went through our first set of rapids.  They were not life threatening, but they were thrilling nonetheless.  We then had a quick Q&A session.  I remember learning that the water we were in came from Switzerland.  Due to the absence of industry, it was clean enough to drink.  It was extremely clear but I was way too cold to start drinking it, although I did have a sip or two.  Sometime during the trip, we passed Arnold Swarzeneggar's hometown.  Also, we passed the mountain that supposedly makes up the Paramount film company's logo.
 
Next, the instructor told us about a game they usually play there, consisting of behavior that made me feel as if I was in a 16th century war.  He stated that we were going to intimidate our fellow rafters by sneaking up on them, standing up and screaming war cries.  First, however, we would need to learn to effectively stand up.  We did question that this contradicted one of the rules.  We would, however, proceed to disregard each and every rule one by one and soon figure out that it was all a hoax.  There were actually no rules whatsoever on that rafting trip.
 
So, we snuck up on another raft, and all stood up, screaming our lungs out at them.  Our instructor then attempted to push a couple of us in, but everyone managed to secure themselves on the raft.  We then tested our balancing skills by standing on the edges of the raft, passing our oars around. 
 
I think the instructor became displeased that none of us were voluntarily jumping into the water.  He then suggested that we try to "pop a wheelie" with the raft.  After assuring myself that that was a metaphor of some sort, the instructor proved his literalness.  He grabbed a rope tied to the front of the raft, then walked to the back, and proceeded to pull the raft's nose into the air, while leaning back.  I remember thinking that as we reached a vertical 45 degree angle, our positioning equaled the temperature of the water.  Soon, the people towards the back of the raft were struggling to keep out of the water.  I was really happy I was towards the front.  In the end though, it didn't really matter.  The raft flipped, sending us all into the frigid alpine water.  We all immediately resorted to the "drowning chicken" motion, as the instructor referred to it.  There really is no explaining what 45 degree water feels like while you are submerged in it.  It literally takes your breath away.  I've had asthma troubles, and I would compare it to that feeling, except for the uncertainty.  In other words, knowing that we were going to survive was our only relieving thought.  In what must have been a record time, we flipped the raft back over and heaved ourselves back on board.
 
Our rafting concluded after about two hours, leaving an undoubtedly memorable experience.  The scenery alone made it more than worth the €30 price tag.  I shook hands and thanked our amazing instructor.  He really made what was one of the best experiences of the tour.
 
At the stop point, we had time to shower, change and get some hot chocolate.  The showers were more to warm up, as the water in that river was probably cleaner than the world's average shower.  It did the job though and I took one of the best showers of my life.  I then ordered a hot dog at the concession stand with my Hot Dog Jonnie's shirt on.  I swear the coincidence was unintentional.  My tour mates commented that I was the epitome of a stereotypical American, at least with food.  In my three weeks abroad, I gathered that the world's consensus of Americans mostly revolves around hot dogs, hamburgers, obesity and skewed foreign policies.
 
After we left the rafting end point, we soon arrived at the chateau in Hopfgarten, Austria.  It was nothing like the chateau in France.  However, after all of the "dodgy" (there you go, Aussies) campsites, we were loving it.  There, I roomed with Steve and Neil.  Before we were even settled in, Matt ran over from his room next door to show us that he found the lost key from our cabin in Venice.  I meant to ask for my €5 back, but I forgot.  Matt, when I make it to Melbourne, you owe me a beer.
 
I think due to the freshest air ever, I was feeling as energetic as ever, so I walked with James into town.  He was in search of an ATM.  Right down the road from the chateau was a huge lumber yard.  It added yet another dimension to the great smelling air.  Maybe it was just me, but the general aroma of that town was incredible.  We were due back at the chateau for welcome drinks soon.  We walked for twenty minutes or so and realized we weren't going to make it all the way to town and back.  I returned to the campsite, while James proceeded into town.  He would later tell me that he found the ATM but it was out of order.

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HOPFGARTEN AT DUSK

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AND ANOTHER

The welcome drink consisted of a shot of some sort of apple drink.  It was probably a schnapps.  It wasn't my drink of choice, but it far exceeded the usual wine or champagne welcome drinks at previous stops.  We met the Contiki staff, which were nice as usual.  I honestly didn't run into one staff member on the entire tour that was anything short of incredibly nice.
 
We naturally ended up in the chateau's bar.  I had a couple beers.  What was most comical, and also one of the best examples of the way Aussies are, was Kale's determination to buy Yoon a beer.  I've never seen anything like it.  This is my best reenactment of the conversation (imagine the thickest western Australian accent possible from Kale, and Yoon, who didn't even completely speak English):
 
Kale - Do you want a beer, Yoon?
Yoon - No thank you.
Kale - Don't be silly.  Of course you want one.
Yoon - No.  Really, it's okay.
Kale - Ach.  Come on, Yoon.  You're not going to make me beg, are you?
 
At this point, Kale started walking towards the bar and Yoon tried to physically stop him, holding his arm.
 
Kale - One beer for my mate, here....  Here you are, Yoon.
Yoon - laughing Thank you.
 
Kudos Kale.  You are one of the most generous people I have ever met.  As people started filing into the bar, I unfortunately had to make my way to the kitchen.  On Contiki tours, everyone takes their turn to help out with responsibilities for the meals, in order to keep the cost down.  While doing this for only 2 out of 23 days, I didn't mind at all.  I was a "dishie" which basically meant making sure everyone got a plate of food.  Also, I was to clear the tables at the end of each meal.  In all, it was about 10 to 15 minutes worth of work for each meal, and it culminated in a free shot on both days.
 
We had turkey that night.  I ate with Kent, Freddy, Olivia, Kim, Yvonne and Vince.  After dinner, James, Vince, Yoon and I migrated to the bar.  I was still eagerly awaiting an early night to catch up on much needed sleep.  I found the bar to be boring.  The music was loud and annoying and I wasn't in the mood to drink.  Vince asked the bartender to turn the music down a bit, but the bartender said they like to keep it at that volume.  He agreed to compromise but then he did no more than touch the volume dial.  I don't think it made any difference whatsoever.  I found it to be a little insulting and I would have rather he flat out refuse to turn it down.  Anyway, that was enough to seal the decision.  At 10:00 pm, I left the bar for bed.
 
Since going to bed at this hour while on a Contiki tour seems to be blasphemy, it would not prove to be so simple.  Luck had it that Matt, Steve, and Neil were playing blackjack in my room.  I conceded that it would have been impossible to sleep next to this, so I resorted to the next best option.  I joined the game.
 
We were all on a budget, so none of us wanted to bet any money.  We did agree that there needed to be some motivation behind the game though.  After some ridiculous and humorous suggestions, it was decided that the loser would have to mummify himself in toilet paper and then make an appearance in the chateau's bar.  Luckily, Matt lost.  I say this because Matt was the perfect person to make the best of that situation.  We went through three or four rolls of toilet paper and Matt was covered, head to toe.  Despite getting my initial wish of everyone leaving my room, providing the opportunity to go to sleep, I couldn't help but join them down in the bar.  I had to see everyone's reaction to what we had done.  Everyone burst out in laughter as we entered.  Matt then danced for a while, and eventually all of his wrappings were scattered all over the floor.

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ME WITH MUMMIFIED MATT

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MATT LOSING HIS WRAPPINGS

In what seemed to be a similar fashion to Kale insisting that Yoon drink earlier that day, Yoon insisted that I dance.  I politely refused and stated that I have not danced since my senior prom, and I was intending on keeping it that way.
 
I actually was able to get upstairs for bed at midnight, which was earlier than I thought I would.  I thought it was a lame attempt at getting to sleep early, because it wasn't really early enough to capitalize on catching up with sleep, and I was missing out on some quality partying time.  I actually considered going back to the bar, but I think I fell asleep while trying to choose.  I would promise myself after that night to make it to bed either significantly early or significantly late every night for the rest of the tour.  The next day's activities: mountain biking and parapenting (cliff diving without the freefall) in the Alps!