Sunday, March 29, 2009


Fortunately Bosnia/Hercegovina has a local cuisine, presumably via the Turks, similar to what I saw in Kosovo, saucey almost curry-like dishes which, except for goulash, have names that I’m not familiar with, and are not altogether unlike some of the Muslim food that enters Southeast Asia and gets transformed into Thai and Padang (Indonesian) cuisine. In addition to this are moussaka and the local version of lasagna among others. Desserts include baklava and halva and others with difficult names, which should confirm the origin of the influence. Since I discovered the local cuisine and started eating actual meals- not in restaurants, mind you, as that would involve adding smoke to every dish- I realize I’ve been eating like a horse, and I don’t mean apples. At first I figure that must be because of the cold weather- you burn more fuel to stay warm. But mostly I think it’s just that I’ve been eating less simply because a traveler’s diet is so boring. Moral of the story: the boredom diet works.

We Westerners wonder why obesity is such a modern problem while trying to decide whether to order the cheesecake or the tiramisu for dessert. My problem is more one of eating cheaply and healthily at the same time. Eating small but frequent meal-ettes has been vindicated as not only acceptable but actually beneficial to people with weight-control issues. The problem is eating healthily. Pizza is not the answer. Fruits and vegetables are. For a hyper-traveler this helps control costs also. My friends rag on me about how I’m such a tightwad, yet at the same time so unusually rich that I can travel all the time and all the world, while they rack up three-figure bills at the sushi bar, wishing they could travel some day, too. Go figure. Do the math. Get a clue.

Of course for the true backpacker self-catering is the thing, but you have to have a kitchen to do that in style, or at least a mini-fridge and a microwave, almost standard features in US hotel rooms now, much to my approval. Next to internet, this is the most important ingredient of any good hostel. But what good’s a kitchen in an area that doesn’t have instant noodles or rice cookers? That’s half my diet right there. Of course there is a tradition that pre-dates hostels that still persists in some parts of the world and is also a good alternative to the typical businessman’s hotel.

I’ve got the killer deal on local digs here in Sarajevo, in-room internet and cable TV en suite WITH BREAKFAST for less then twenty bucks. Only problem is it’s not right in the Turkey Quarter, with all the other tourist turkeys, so I get malls and supermarkets instead of tourist sites. This place is a part of a tradition that pre-dates modern hotels and restaurants and clubs, when the local inn served all those functions (did you know that the first restaurant in Europe opened for business less then three hundred years ago?). Places like this still exist widely in the UK, rooms above pubs, though mostly outside, or at least on the outskirts, of London. Many even serve ‘full English breakfast’, aka ‘full Irish breakfast’ (don’t light any matches). Their existence may be in peril with the advent of later bar hours, since you could also drink late there if you had a room. Considering the post-smoking fate of many pubs, however, there may be a counter-trend of conversion to hostels. I hope so. Of course the TV here is mostly Serbo-Bosniac-Croatian with assorted European channels, but that’s half the fun, watching the Italian military weather and German reality TV. At least I’ve got the History, Discovery, and NatGeo channels, and for news I’ve got al-Jazeera. It beats Fox hands down. What would a time-lapse movie of this place for the last century reveal? Probably some things you wouldn’t want to see.

This area’s got some heavy karma to deal with, specifically the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s and consequent ‘ethnic cleansing’. I saw a program on al-J today about the systematic rape and imprisonment of Bosnian women, not as a random act of violence, which I had assumed, BUT AS AN ACT OF ‘ETHNIC CLEANSING’, TO ENSURE THAT THEIR OFFSPRING WOULD BE SERBIAN (a moment of silence please while I get a towel. If tears could turn turbines...),

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as if religion were transmitted sexually. These hate children are being raised as Muslims of course, and soon will begin asking questions. Aside from any slight ethnic admixtures the Bosnians might have gotten from the Turks, and the Croats from their Italian neighbors across the Sea, and the Serbs from their eastern first cousin Russians, the groups are indistinguishable of course.

It’s time for a new religion, one to unite all the others. When I mention ‘the war’ to my hotel hosts, they clam up like oysters, jaw muscles quivering. Who knows? They might be Serbian. The memories carry weapons; at least the future has some variables in the equation. For better or worse Bosnia & Hercegovina is effectively divided into at least two parts, the recognized Bosniac/Croat government and the Serbian-dominated ‘Republika Srpski’. I guess I’ll have to pass through there just in case they become a UN-recognized independent country one day. Is this what ‘Balkanization’ is all about? It sounds like a process for hardening rubber or something. Ethnic cleansing will harden you or something.

Sarajevo is not a beautiful city, but by regional standards it’s not bad, and has its share of bright spots, mostly around the ‘stari grad’ Turkish Quarter, all gussied up for tourism. The rest of the city is basically Bolshevik Modern Concrete Cell-block, but it could be worse. At least the apartment complexes tend to be color-coded. Of course it’s amazing what a little sunshine can do. The temps have hit a balmy 10C-50F the last two days after hovering only 2-3 degrees above freezing before that. It’s supposed to snow 5-8 inches tonight then warm up later in the week, maybe even ABOVE 15C-59F! Bring on the sun block! Of course by then I may be long gone or… maybe not. I’ve got about two weeks of travel left to accomplish in over three weeks, so I’m idling with the engine running, next stop either Split or Zagreb or Ljubljana, Africa pretty firmly on the back-burner until next month, probably Ethiopia and maybe Kenya, too, along with northern Europe. Ethiopia Airlines will pretty much give you another destination and a stop in Addis Ababa for little more than the flight to Addis itself. You heard it here first. I just bought a water kettle, so I’m getting domestic, wherever that happens to be. The Bosnian word for ‘signature’ is ‘potpis’. I like that.

All good things must come to an end of course. That’s okay. I couldn’t look another ham and cheese breakfast in the face anyway. Sarajevo falls short of a true epiphany regardless. For that I need to blend into a place, not just occupy a corner in its periphery, or just satisfy a financial angle. I need to be inspired linguistically also. Dabbling in Serbo-Croatian is okay, but ultimately just a primer for Russian. I think my hotel wants to get rid of me. The breakfast portions have been getting smaller every day. Then the Internet went out again yesterday, just like the beginning of my stay here. They’d already warned me that a crowd was coming for the vikend, but that I could probably move to another room; sounds ominous. I book onward passage. I also book that long-planned flight to Addis Ababa for a month from now.

I had planned to book on through to Nairobi on Ethiopian Airline, but when their credit card procedure glitches on me, I go back to the drawing board (Expedia), and end up booking on Turkish Airlines, with a long stopover at IST on the way back, something I had previously failed to accomplish through the airline’s website itself, all for the simple ADD price (and less than the Ethiopian options). A little less Africa is fine, since it tends to be intense, and I’m inspired by the Turkish element in Bosnia. Hopefully I can make the Black Sea loop, pending Russian visa. If that’s multiple-entry, then I’ll try to pick up St. Pete on the Scandinavia loop. Since I’m on a roll and my Turkish Air flight lands back at Stansted instead of LHR, I go ahead and book a Ryan Air flight connection to Stockhom on the same day. What the Hell, it’s only fifty bucks. This is hyper-travel.

The next day dawns clear and bright, a perfect day for travel. Finally I find the Chinese, their stores lined up on the edge of town, preparing for the invasion. Don’t forget the chopsticks. Soon we’re driving into snow of course. You don’t get out of Sarajevo without the ritual baptism of snow. It’s like Flagstaff, I checking the Weather Channel constantly. Its checkered past is like Mississippi. Then it hits me- this may not be my epiphany, but at least it’s my catharsis, forcing me to face up to the dark recesses of my own past. I’ve been at odds with all the places I’ve ever lived, so maybe now I’m trying to get even by going to them all. Catharses can be messy.

Somewhere along the way to the Croatian border we start traveling in the same downward direction as the river, the Mosques grow fewer, houses are occupied instead of vacant, and small garden patches under the till appear.

The postal drop-boxes say ‘Republika Srpski’. Maybe the Serbs are bitter at their own tortured past. The words ‘Slav’ and ‘slave’ are cognate, you know; now you do. Crossing the border into Croatia is like turning on the lights, cleaner and brighter. The sun comes out accordingly. We’re on a super-highway now, heading toward Europe, heading toward the future. Me, I’m still looking for an epiphany. Best bet now is Nice, France. It doesn’t sound very ‘me’, but then neither did Vina del Mar or Montego Bay on my last two trips. The future has an infinite number of mathematical possibilities. The past, well… the past sucks. That’s a technical term. Maybe I should go to Cannes instead, thoroughly mix my metaphors. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 23, 2009


The bus is pulling in to Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina, scene of much violence back in the ‘90’s. There are a few touts for guesthouses there, but no Elvis, the guy who’s supposed to pick me up. I finally decide to start walking since it’s not so cold and my ‘motel’ is not so far. About then a car pulls up to a stop in front of me. It’s Elvis, no impersonator. I ask him if that’s for Presley or Costello. He says he assumes Presley. I tell him that’s too bad since I know all the words to ‘(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding’. He’s not impressed. I tell him I’m also from Elvis Presley’s home state. He asks what state that is. I tell him Mississippi. He’s still not impressed.

“But now I live in California.”

Now he’s impressed. “Oh, California is very nice state. Mostar is like California, always sunny. We have famous song, ‘Mostar, California’.” It’s amazing the cache’ California carries overseas, especially LA, i.e. Hollywood.

I tell him I haven’t heard that song, but privately I fail to see much superficial resemblance. Mostar seems more like a Muslim fairy tale, minarets dotting the skyline, at least in the old town, with snowy peaks in the distance. It’s quiet now at least, after the Serbian reign of terror, a mix of old and new. Its big claim to fame is the old bridge, known as ‘Stari Most’, Bosnian for… you guessed it… old bridge. Elvis takes a detour to show it to me by the night’s light. It’s beautiful, sure enough, slim and gracefully arching over frothy waters. Elvis is having fun making detours to the ‘motel’, totally eliminating any chance that I’ll actually remember the route, but that’s okay; he’s having fun. When we finally get to the ‘motel’, it looks like a real place of business, not just somebody renting out some flats and converting it to a hostel. The three parking spaces out front hardly qualify it as a ‘motel’ in my opinion, so I feel justified with the quotation marks.

Elvis soon splits, having done his thing, and despite the fact that besides him the staff speaks little or no English, the room is killer, just like downtown, even a shower stall that looks like science fiction, bells and whistles, massaging me in places I didn’t know water could even reach, everything but… the heat. I can’t coax any heat out of the air conditioner no matter how hard I try, no combination of modes, temps, whatever… so I’m shit out of luck. All I really really want is just some heat in my room, or rather a room with some heat in it. There’s no substitute for that, and I haven’t had any since Kosovo. And sun-bathing doesn’t count. I thought I was leaving the cold by heading to the coast. It turns out I was heading into it. I’d rather have 0C-32F outside and 20C-68F in my room than 10C-50F average in both.

I’m looking for a place to settle down for a week or two, and so far I can’t find it. If I find nothing soon, then it’s on to Ethiopia, or maybe South Africa. My nesting instinct is as strong as my traveling instinct, perhaps heightened by the psychological competition. ‘Home’ is a constant search, a carrot strategically placed. I don’t know but what all my travels are ultimately about finding home, that place where I belong. On the road itself, however, temporary homes are nice, and suffice. Constant travel itself, losing self in the movie screen of images and sounds, gets old. It’s nice to find a place to kick back, buy some groceries, and wash some clothes. It’s just a matter of finding the right combination of low costs, good temps, and interesting activities. But being cold for a week is not attractive and the problem is not outside; it’s inside. Heat is optional in hotels here, like showers in France. 10C-50F is tolerable, especially if that’s the LOW temp, but not comfortable. They probably figure THEY don’t use heaters, so why should the guests? Get a clue- guests don’t have kitchens. Almost any heat source would help, but a TV is not enough, except to maybe dry the socks. I make plans for onward travel to Sarajevo. That may be my last option to kick back. If it’s not suitable, then I may bail.

Mostar is too small anyway. There’s not much to do besides viewing the bridge, dining by the river, and wandering the streets. At least the coffee’s good, rich espresso for less than a buck. Of course a single espresso doesn’t do much more than chase away the withdrawal symptoms for me, so I guess I should do double shooters, or quit altogether. Maybe it’s my imagination, but Bosnia seems friendlier. Maybe that’s what religion does for you, and there’s plenty of that here, both Muslim and Christian, even madrasahs for the kids. The Muslims have small graveyards at every mosque, complete with white pointy headstones, while the Christians have larger detached ones with black headstones. That’s what you wanted to know, right? It seems like I’m the only tourist in town. Hotels are empty and so are the restaurants. I watch TV and hear about AIG bonuses to greedy corporate pigs apparently being rewarded for their ability to screw over the very people making sacrifices to bail them out. I wonder if there’s a connection between that and the slow tourist season. Duh. “Without Communism to keep it honest, capitalism no longer is.” Maybe it’s time for socialism to make a comeback. Just don’t call it ‘communism’, since that’s a dirty word. Reagan’s dead and so’s his ‘revolution’.

Mostar shows heavy scars from the war with Serbia of 1992 and the racist policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’. The irony is that Bosnia and Serbia and Croatia are all the same race, with some notable cultural differences, specifically religion. Most violence is committed within the family, isn’t it? Unfortunately you can’t rebuild history like you can buildings. You’re stuck with the memories, and they die hard. The same is true on a personal level. As I sit soaking up afternoon sun in a Mostar Islamic graveyard I reflect on all the people who have come and gone in my life and wonder why. Then I realize how much time I’ve spent in other countries, a stranger in a strange land, trying to make sense of things ‘back home’. Is this what travel ultimately means?

Be careful what you ask for; you might just get it. If Beograd is cold, and Kosovo freezing, then Sarajevo is absolutely Arctic. If Mostar is the Islamic fairy tale, then Sarajevo must be paradise, virgins optional, with its snow and ice and lofty peaks. I first heard of Sarajevo from the 1984 Winter Olympics. Then I next heard of it during the 1992 War. How could it be the same place, fallen from the heights of international fame to the depths in such a short time? Racism/nationalism is a powerful force and ultimately negative. Religion’s not perfect, but it’s better than that. Unfortunately people of the Book are sometimes on a different page. Sarajevo is like the other Beirut, a modern progressive city brought down by sectarian violence, provoked by those who’d rather condemn than tolerate.

For all their faults, cities do generate a certain psychological warmth that’s attractive, in addition to the heat island effect, the warmth of anonymity in crowds. My room has a heater in it also, though it’s probably not sufficient for the large room. Still a large room is nice, especially with Cable TV and a double bed with breakfast for $20. Unfortunately the Internet’s down, ‘local only’, whatever that means. It means no ‘w’s, no e-mail, no half-dressed web-cam girls in the Philippines staring vacantly at their screens waiting for the signal ‘customer online’ while baby cries in the next room and Grandma tries to calm him. Sarajevo has a well-defined tourist area in the ‘Turkish quarter’, with plenty of budget accommodation, so I may move in closer if Internet stays down here. It’s not exactly Khao Sarn road there yet, but that’s good. I have to decide today whether to stay on or bail out, or at least I feel that way anyway. How can I travel Ethiopia in less than three weeks? I could of course if it were just Ethiopia, but not Somaliland, Djibouti, and Eritrea, too. Of course that’s no more countries to check off the list than I would postpone if I were to exit Europe early anyway, and Ethiopia is not a country to rush. Logic says to be here now. Something else says to get warm now.

My return date to the US is already set, unchanging inviolable, being a frequent flier freebie. If I stay then I get to study Slavic language case endings and conjugations, probably the most fun I’ve had since re-learning differential equations to teach them to my wife’s son, even if it didn’t ‘take’. Maybe then I’ll tour sites of winter Olympics, Innsbruck and Torino after this, just to back-fill some logic onto a rather unpredictable situation as if I planned it like that all along. Unfortunately the Chinese haven’t gotten here yet, or the few that have don’t realize the potential of their hot wok nor their hard work. Then I’d feel right at home. Maybe the Turkish ‘oriental’ cuisine will suffice. I’ll be looking for the real meal deal today. But the rugs are incredible, something I had no idea of, even after a career of dealing handicrafts. They call them ‘kilims’; I wonder why. I wonder if they’re really made here or just imported for sale through Turkish marketing connections. Surprise me.

Internet’s back up and I’ve got work to do. I’ve also got decisions to make, specifically whether to jump ship Europe and bail out to Africa while there’s still time to enjoy it. I can’t decide, so I try to postpone the decision creatively. There’s a bus to Ljubljana Sunday overnight. If I did that I could still get to Rome by the 24th to catch my theoretical flight to Africa, instead of going to Rome via the ferry to Ancona. That way I can hang here another day, maybe longer if that’s the ultimate decision. This kind of non-decision can have further repercussions in my hyper-travel. Already planning my next trip next month, probably to whichever part of Africa I forego now, if I go at all, for a month with another month in Europe, but the most northern Scandinavian part, assuming the dollar holds up, which right now is questionable, since it’s slid sometime in the last week while I wasn’t watching… but I could at least commit half the way to London, which is where all the cheapest flights originate, and which has NOT re-valued against the dollar like that pesky old Euro has.

Coincidentally today AA sends me a special offer to fly RT to London before July at regular price $800+ and get 25,000 frequent flyer miles worth $250+/-, but now I find British Airways has a RT on the same dates for only $548 TAX INC and then I can continue on to either Johannesburg OR Addis Ababa for less than $600 OR BOTH considering the flight between them at African rip-off prices is twice that. Hell, I can do that. I’m always ready to commit half-way. Today’s the first day of spring and snow is falling here in Sarajevo. There is no logic. Which button do I push? The bus to Ljubljana leaves without me. I guess that’s my non-decision. I find a cafeteria line that’s got all the local food on display with names attached, so I can just point-and-click, learn as I go. It’s not bad either, Muslim food, and reasonably priced. I left Athens on 3-3. When I arrived in Bosnia two weeks later, this was my eighth country within that time, nine if you count Kosovo. What do I do now? I need a line, Trinity. At least it’s warmer now. That’s the nice thing about Internet. It’s warm inside.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


A long lonely road leads from Beograd to Kosovo, like some silly cliché being spoken for the umpteenth million time, but lending some credence to its claims of independence, regardless of the ethnicities involved. But first we go more than half way back to Nis before turning west, aggravating my ‘no backtrack’ sensibilities a bit. It seems like somebody in Sofia, Bulgaria, could organize a connection to Pristina at least as good as what I had to Beograd. I guess they did; it’s called Macedonia. At the de facto border Serbia checks me out, but I don’t think I ever got checked in, just glanced at. I guess the UN doesn’t do that; only real countries do. Kosovo has still got a ways to go. Immediately the scenery changes, though. Instead of the well-defined countryside of Serbia, with its tilled soils and trash-strewn roads and streams, we’re back into the mixed town/country hazh-pazh like Albania. I guess it’s part of the ethnic character of these ethnic Albanians. Is city planning hard-wired into the DNA?

So I get into town after dark and get a taxi up into the hills overlooking town where ‘the professor’ runs his guesthouse/hostel. He’s a nice old man who studied engineering in the UK, doing graduate work some time back in the 70’s. Hey, wait a minute… I graduated college in the 70’s. Do I look that old? Anyway, he’s got a nice enough place with real radiated heat in the rooms. We need it; the next day the first thing I see is snow coming down. The problem with hostels is that they’re frequently far removed from the center of town, necessitating bus rides or long walks. Fortunately I like to walk. That doesn’t help much late at night of course, but I don’t do late nights much any more any way. The good thing, in addition to their reasonable cost, is the chance to meet other travelers and/or to more or less have an apartment in a foreign country on a temporary basis. They come in all flavors, from sub-leased flats to extra rooms in somebody’s house. The ‘profesor’s place is more like the latter, complete with instructions to remove shoes. I tell him that’s no problem after living in Thailand for ten years. I think some of these people get a kick out of seeing an old geezer like me still trucking.

Kosovo is not exactly a hot spot for travelers these days, not yet at least. Right now it’s more of a joint project between the UN and EU, keeping the Serbians at bay, the EU presence in evidence everywhere. As such it’s the largest preserve of second-language English speakers between Athens and Dubrovnik. If this improves its possibilities for tourism, that hasn’t happened yet, though the possibilities are there. Transportation agents just assumed I would be returning, as if I were another UN operative, as if they’d never seen a tourist buy a one-way ticket. The food here is good, thanks to the historic association with Islam and Ottoman Turkey. In addition to the ubiquitous kebaptores and their meaty grill smells wafting over the streets, there are gulashes and musakas and other saucier dishes that are all quite good and reasonably priced. I had one of the best hamburgers in years here, one of the first in years, too, for that matter. There are also local versions of Italian dishes such as lasagna. So the question still remains of the Italian connection with Albanian culture. Is that a product of colonialism or long-standing relations or did I perceive that because they took me for an Italian in Albania?

Certain the Albanian/Illyrian culture is as ancient as the Italian and has long been in contact. They too were around long before the Germans began pouring in from the north and the Slavs from the East. They even kiss and hug all the time just like Italians. They hang out in cafes all day just like Italians would do if the cafes would let them. Though the language contains many superficial resemblances to Italian, though, most of that are the buzz words of trade, not core vocabulary. And while Albania itself may have a greater Italian influence than Kosovo, I think that Albania DID take me for an Italian, especially after I started speaking it in the market, for lack of options. The Kosovans take me for a German. Is Albanian culture the missing link between northern and southern Europe? I’ve always wondered where the French negative pas comes from. Well, there it is, right there on the Nescafe machine in Kosovo- pa/me = with/without (sugar). At least they ended up with a country of their own, maybe two. The Celts were the big losers, despite Irish claims to their heritage.

Mother Teresa is the Albanian region’s main claim to fame and statues of her abound. We certainly needed some divine intervention on the bus trip out of the country. Usually when you cross a border you pass one country’s gate and the other is a few minutes away- not here. Not only did we climb the narrowest steepest mountain pass that I’ve EVER been on, it just happened to be at the border between two countries, and it just happened to be snowing at the time. Oh shit! This is nothing like the little dusting Mladen and I got back in Macedonia. This is real! Snow banks are piled up on the side of the road, plows are operating steadily, and many passages are one-lane-only. Most of the other traffic was eighteen-wheelers! Okay God, here’s the deal: just one more favor and we’re even, okay? I promise! When we finally get to the other border gate I’m wide awake from anxiety and fear. But mostly I just want some warmer weather- sunny beach or bust! I’m swearing off long johns forever! As if the weather weren’t bad enough, the drivers have got some screeching local music DVD on ‘replay’ to well past midnight and the seats are cramped enough to give a dwarf thrombo-phlebitis.

Somehow we make it of course, and soon we’re down in the Montenegrin coastal city of Ulcinj at 5am. From here I’ll go on to the town of Pudva, the center of the Macdedonian ‘Riviera’. But first I enlist one of the local dogs to take me on a tour of downtown Ulcinj in the early morning hours to see what I’m missing- not much. At 7:00 my bus takes off up the coastline, through Bar toward Pudva. Me, I’m drifting in and out of consciousness after a night on the bus from hell. It almost feels like I’m back in Europe now, back from the hinterlands. Pudva itself is a construction site, building up faster even than Pristina, much of it Russian money they say, not surprising seeing the penchant for casinos. I’m not sure why I’m here, except that there was a hostel bookable online and I need a day’s sleep after a night’s travel. There is a ‘stari grad’, an old town here, with wall and all, just like the textbook model, built to withstand attack. Now they’re just tourist attractions. Who says our lives haven’t gotten better through the course of history? Many do, imagining some romantic past without the Romans, full of fairies and runes and Venus figurines that meant we all loved each other in a perfect state of natural bliss, uh huh.

I get a killer room for less than U$20, but I’m still cold. Seems in the more moderate climes they don’t bother with heaters, and these concrete block apartments hold in the cold, nice in the summer but bad in the winter. I’ve never used an air conditioner for heat before, but… it works. Unfortunately there are no kitchen facilities and the town is a long walk. Hostels are pot luck. Even the computer room is down in the owner’s living room and the TV doesn’t work. What the Hell, it’s only one night and they give me coffee and baklava on arrival, so I can’t complain. They aren’t getting rich off me either. He gives me books to read, including a travel book by Henry Rollins in which he’s hanging with Black Sabbath during their reunion, mostly exclaiming, “Wow! This is so cool!” So now that I know that I’m a better writer than Henry Rollins, I feel somewhat better, though still cold. Will I have to go back to the mountains to find a room with heat so I won’t freeze to death on the beach? It’s tolerable, but I just can’t get much work done trying to type under the covers, and that means you I’m talking about.

It looks like I will. In Dubrovnik they give me no remote control for the air-con, so I’m at the mercy of Nature. Fortunately temps are getting up to 15C-59F at least, so not freezing. On the way up the bus passed through Kotor and the surrounding fiord, which is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen in the world. I wish I’d stayed there instead of Pudva, but Dubrovnik makes up for it. Whoever said that it’s the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ is right, beautiful views from every angle and a ‘stari grad’ for the record books. Unfortunately this pearl is a bit too shiney for me, too polished and tidy. It feels like Switzerland or something. We’re definitely back in Europe now, prices and all, fast food limited to bakeries. Gone are the shish kebabs and the Turkish hamburgers. Gone is the gulash and moussaka. It’s back to pizza and European pastries and bureks if I’m lucky. I’m scouring Expedia for a flight to somewhere, if not Ethiopia, then maybe South Africa, which ironically is even cheaper, ironic because it’s farther. Airlines are hurting. So am I. Jai yen yen. Cool your jets, Hardie. First I’ll go to Mostar in Bosnia, and maybe even Sarajevo. Can I find warmth in the former site of a Winter Olympics? We’ll see. But first a guy named Elvis is picking me up at the bus station in Mostar, so that’s cool. We should have a lot to talk about. Sometimes it’s nice not speaking the local language, just to see what it brings; but not often.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Bulgaria is a bright spot in a sometimes dismal Balkan landscape. Away from the heavily touristed Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, Balkan Europe is an area best known for its senseless internecine squabbles and Yugoslav Communistic past. Like Albania, Bulgaria remains apart from all that, and is something of an enigma from the get-go. Named for the Eastern steppes tribal marauders who invaded the area not long after the Roman Empire’s collapse, and straddling a region comprising Greeks, Thracians, and later Turks, Bulgaria beame a conduit for Slavic immigration and to this day has the reputation as the oldest of southern Slav cultures. But they were never a part of Yugoslavia, and have moved quickly to distance themselves from the past.

Modern Sofia never sleeps. On the morning I arrived the Bukowski Bar next to the entrance of the hostel I’ve booked is still going strong from the night before as mid-morning creeps up. It’s taken me that long to find the place after a long walk from the bus station and the confusion arising from multiple McDonalds when directions depend on such landmarks. Alas and alack that hostel is full, but they’ve got another around the corner that shares an entrance with an Irish pub, apparently presided over by a real live Irish person, or at least a Brit. That’s who the patrons are. Thus a proud tradition finds fertile soil in the Balkans, that of the British ex-pat, scattered far and wide across the globe, putting down roots wherever the soil is deep enough to park an elbow and the beer strong enough to mitigate any regrets. This has been going on for years, as much a part of the Pax Britannica as limes and baked beans. I doubt sterling will drop so far on FX markets to change that any time soon.

Sofia’s not bad, maybe like a po’ boy’s London or at least Birmingham, plenty of decent food and coffee, bakeries as good as anywhere I know. After starving myself in Albania, too lazy to deal with currency exchange, I’m gorging in Sofia, plenty of foreign exchange since the transport companies won’t take €, and I had to cash a wad. I’d like to go on to Prishtina in Kosovo, but it looks like there’s no direct route so, since I’ve already passed through Skopje, I’m favoring a detour to Beograd in Serbia. That’ll be better any way, since I don’t want too many simple passes in my quest to ‘do’ every country, hopefully every major culture, in the world. Regional transportation is all flakey. The bus requires a transfer in Nis. The train won’t sell tickets until the hour before (?). It seems like I’m spending all my time in Sofia at the bus station.

So finally I decide to buy a bus ticket and try to enjoy the rest of my time in Bulgaria. There are lots of other places in the country to visit, of course, but winter’s hardly the optimum time to do it. Trying to wing it in a country without the local tongue is a test of will, also, as much as ability. It gets old. So does the surliness of the counter help. Would it hurt to smile a little or say ‘thank you’ once in a while? It’s just as easy and twice the fun. Maybe it’s a leftover of Communism, or maybe it’s part of the collective personality. Who knows? Strangely enough it seems in the Balkans that the more English they speak, the politer they are. Just the opposite is true in Thailand, where English is the language of aggression. At least now I know why Albanians considered themselves the nicest people in the world. They were comparing themselves to their neighbors! Sometimes personality traits like these are learned, not given. At least they’ve got nude women on TV after midnight in Sofia, so capitalism accomplished something. Thank God for small miracles.

By now I’ve got pretty good at reading Cyrillic, so that helps keep the belly full. Some words are almost the same. Except for the broken leg MAPKET is easily recognizable as ‘market’, pronounced exactly the same. I assume it’s a loan word, so it should. From there things gradually increase in difficulty. It’s like learning a secret code you invented as a child. PECTOPAHT is ‘restaurant’, pronounced exactly the same. It gets weirder than that of course. ‘Bar’ is 6AP and ‘bazaar’ is 6A3AP, all pronounced like their Latin cousins. Now they’re looking more like techie passwords. If I had a Cyrillic keyboard we could go on, but I don’t, so you get the idea, right? Of course there are some incongruities like ‘HOBO’ (pronounced ‘novo’= ‘new’ of course), advertising new merchandise in fashionable boutiques. About the only food they bother to write in English is pizza, assuming that’s all we eat I guess. Sometimes it seems like that’s all THEY eat, not even bothering with the tomato goop in Cuba. It’ll fill you up at least. It can also constipate you. I may be used to the dry little goat pellets that pass as traveler’s turds, but that doesn’t mean I like them. Drink lots of liquids. Or you can smoke lots of cigarettes like they do. That’ll keep you slim, if it doesn’t kill you first. It’s killing me.

I left Sofia… and headed for Beograd, but not without some trepidations. The reign of terror by Slobodan and his slobs is still fresh in the memory and apparently on the maps with references to things like ‘Republika Srpski’ and other entities that I have no knowledge of. Apparently buses from Beograd to Sarajevo stop on the outskirts, on the Serb side of town. Huh? What century is this? But still it feels like a heartland for something, in contrast to the tentativeness I’ve felt so far in the countryside. There are black cemetery head-stones and red-tile roofs in Serbia, and garden spots well defined. But this bus is half empty, like most I’ve been on. At least they tend to run on time. I have to change buses half the way in Nis so I’m assuming that’ll be a self-evident process. It’s not that easy, but I figure it out and continue on, despite the fact that no one speaks English. By the time I get to Beograd it’s mid-afternoon. By now I’ve gotten wise and book a hostel right close to the bus station. That helps for blitzkrieg tours. The place is bright and cheery and since the private rooms cost triple the dorm price, I opt for the dorm. I figure it’ll be good experience, and it is.

The only problem is the staff’s constant cigarette smoking, but other than that it’s way cool except for the loss of privacy. There’s got to be a trade-off, right? It’s all men, too, from Germany, Australia, and one who I later find out is Mexican, from Guadalajara. Like I say the G8 of international travel is now expanding to G30. I consider that proof of justice in the world. He even speaks good English. I’ll feel hurt if he rebuffs my Spanish, of course, but go for it anyway, Psycholinguistics 101. It’s getting harder to speak foreign languages, at least for an American, with the advent of world English. But we’re cool, talking about things Latino into the night, fueled by the jug of decent Serbian beer being offered. I decide I like hostels; they give a safe haven and source of information to travelers and interaction with others where such is almost impossible with locals. I might open one in LA, which could probably use it.

Beograd is pretty uninspiring, but not so bad. It could use a coat of paint. They say nightlife is the big attraction, but that doesn’t much work for me any more. Alcohol is poison; handle with caution. I see no bragging rights involved in being able to ‘handle your liquor.’ If that’s the goal, then what’s the point? Me, I got travel plans, on to Kosovo, soon to be the newest country in the world, all the while thinking about Ethiopia, so bored I am with the cold weather I’ve had the last month. That Ethiopian visa is burning a hole in my passport. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


There is no direct bus from Tirana, Albania, to Sofia, Bulgaria any more, so you have to transfer in Skopje, Macedonia. Sounds simple, right? Nothing is as simple as it sounds, especially in the back woods of Europe, the forgotten lands, the old country. The bus to Skopje leaves from the ‘muddy patch in front of the train station’ at 9am so I get there bright and early to get my ticket, me and a handful of locals and another backpacker who seems to want nothing to do with me, probably some Euro-trash who’s ‘more backpack than thou’, afraid that contact with another groover might spoil the authenticity of his experience. Maybe he’s right. Two can play that game I guess. Who needs him anyhow? He seems to be rapping with the drivers, probably hasn’t even realized yet that they don’t understand a word of his English pidgin shit. So we head off into the hazh-pazh countryside of Albania, broken bruised and beaten, not yet having received the coat of paint that the capital has, a splash here, a stripe there, and a mosaic in between, anything to try to forget the lost decades of Commonist rule and the psychological misgivings that can ensue. Somehow Nature always survives regardless of men’s mistakes. Still Albania seems a bit more broken than most, with neither plan nor order.

By the time we approach the border we’re high into the hills again, past 19th century-style mining operations and failed industry. By this time I’ve broken the ice with my fellow backpacker. Turns out he’s Croatian and a really nice guy, hardly the arrogant a**hole I’d imagined. I feel foolish, but not as much as I would have if we’d traveled the whole way unspeaking. He’s on his way to India via Istanbul and speaks good English, having practiced much in the tourist industry of Dubrovnik. His name is Mladen. There are a lot of backpackers from non-traditional Western countries now, including China. The common bond is a modern western ‘tude, a pocket and a head full of change, and a decent command of English. Upon reaching the border itself we find it so clogged that we change buses to avoid formalities; big mistake. As we continue on the other side it’s soon snowing. Even Mladen looks at me and goes, “WOW!” And I’m thinking, ‘Don’t you freak out or I’ll really freak. You’re a local!’ But I didn’t say anything. It’s been a long hard winter for Europe.

We make it through the snow okay, but that’s not good enough. The old bus pops a gasket or something and soon is wheezing like an old woman climbing six flights of stairs. We pull over and the driver puts on his greasy mechanic’s apron like, “That’ll show the bus who’s boss!” Yeah, right. This old bag of nuts and bolts ain’t goin’ nowhere. So we wait and wait and wait for the company to send a van to pick us up. Mladen’s going to miss his bus to Istanbul, but that’s good for me, since he’ll continue on to Sofia, like me, instead. At this point his presence, and command of All Things Slavic are very reassuring to me, particularly since we’ve become quite friendly. I realize at this point how vulnerable and insecure I am, hardly the master traveler and linguist I may come off as sometimes, to myself if not others, whether intentionally or otherwise. Down deep I’m a scared little child. The only difference is I’ve been there before, lived my whole life there in fact, trembling before the vagaries of Circumstance and creating new gods to save me. Bottom line: I hate that sinking feeling when you’re stuck out of luck and there’s nowhere to pass the buck. I know it well.

The bus driver finally flags down an empty van and pays the van driver to take us on into town. Hell, we could’ve done that an hour ago. That’s what we would’ve done ten years ago without cell phones and the miracles they bring. So by the time we finally limp into the station at Tetova, Macedonia, it’s dark and cold and lonely. I’m really glad Mladen is there. Maybe he’s glad, too, but I don’t ask. Guys don’t do that. Problem is, the bus to Sofia leaves from Skopje, and that’s still an hour and another bus ride away, something I didn’t like in the original plan, and am now regretting. If you want to traipse the Balkans, bring a friend. You might need it. We persevere on to Skopje, where there’s a bus to Sofia at midnight. So we buy tickets and have time to kill; things are looking up. It’ll be Sofia by morning, an up-and-coming tourist destination, there and Bulgaria in general. But now we’ve got three hours to kill so we trade stories and talk trash and eat more oily pies, which Mladen explains to me is ‘real Balkan food’, as if I didn’t already know after living on them in Tirana. He also tells me that Macedonia has the best music in the Balkans, and good food, too.

At first I regret passing through without really stopping but the more I see of it, the less that Skopje agrees with me, apparently splayed out wide, unfriendly to walkers. There’s nothing worse for a backpacker than that. ‘Backpacker’ may not mean ‘hiker’ anymore, but it definitely means ‘walker.’ Going through twelve countries in two months, I’m entitled to a few quickie transits, aren’t I? Macedonia is the TAFKAP of countries, officially the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, FYROM, apparently to appease the sensitivities of Greeks for whom the concept of ‘Macedonia’ has entirely different connotations. I don’t know about the music or the food, but the women certainly seem to exude a certain fashionable sexiness that I haven’t elsewhere in the Balkans… or much of anywhere for that matter… and we’re in the bus station for God’s sake! But such things hardly interest me any more these days… yeah, right.

This is Cyrillic country now, everything written in the alphabet that the first millennium Orthodox monks Cyril and his brother what’s-his-name so methodically adapted from Greek to fit the Slavic tongue. If Albanian seemed foreign, this seems downright alien! Fortunately I’ve already got a head start in Greece, and the difference between this and that are less than the differences between that and the Roman alphabet, so my little brain’s already going to work on it. Unfortunately all the Slavic alphabets seem to have minor differences between them, so total mastery may never be complete, but still it’s nice to be able to read a menu, regardless of whether I can actually speak the language. People talk about the difficulties of Croatian, exclaiming, “At least they use Roman letters!” when in fact that’s the easiest part. I wish I could absorb a language acoustically as fast as I can its graphic symbols. That may be the one part of language that you actually can ‘pick up.’ Most things you can pick up from foreign tongues I wouldn’t take home to show Mom.

At least there’s a real bus station in Skopje. That’s refreshing. Tirana had nothing of the sort. ‘Muddy patch’ indeed! But our mignight bus is late and I’m freezing outside waiting for it. I mean FREEZING! I’ve been cold this whole trip, but this is ridiculous! Our bus finally shows up and we pile on quickly. Macedonia passes under our wheels, almost an entire country traversed in darkness. At least the border crossing to Bulgaria is civilized; they collect the passports then bring them back all stamped up and ready to go. Mladen had to go discuss something, but came back unperturbed. When the bus finally pulls into Sofia the sun is rising. Mladen and I say our goodbyes and I go for a cup of espresso. It costs less than the 3-in-1 Nescafe. It’s good, too. Things are looking up.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


Travel gets harder south of the Danube or north of Greece, depending on which way you’re coming or going, especially when your stated goal is to visit every last country, regardless of how small or insignificant. The term ‘Balkanization’ takes on new meaning. At the same time that Europe is doing something truly radical in the history of history, putting petty differences and phony nationalism aside and uniting with its neighbors on the basis of common interests and mutual protection, the Balkans are splintering into the tiniest national groups imaginable. Ironically this is in spite of the fact that most of them are of similar language and history, south Slavic by language and race, and united for most of the last fifty years as Yugoslavia, Communist and proud. Now they’re broken up into a baker’s half-dozen of currencies and policies and borders, and another’s in the works, Kosovo being shepherded through its infancy by the UN, which has apparently decided that a region can unilaterally declare independence… and get it. Cool, I might want to try that some day. While this may all be interesting politically and historically, it makes for some tricky travel to see them all, certainly more than a quick ferry over to Dubrovnik to feel like you’ve seen and done Yugoslavia.

But none of that applies to Albania, which has always been a case unto itself, but a case of what it’s not clear. Not Slavic at all but presumably descendants of the ancient Illyrians, themselves apparently the progenitors of northern Europe’s first distinctive culture at Hallstatt, modern Albania arrives on the world stage tentatively. This was a place so closed to the world for four decades under Enver Hoxha that not even other Communists were allowed to visit. Croatians in Dubrovnik are closer to Albania than to their cousins at Split, but none ever crossed over to visit in the Hoxha years. Most still haven’t. Now little of his decades-long regime remains but the one-man bunkers dotting the countryside meant to stave off an imagined foreign invasion. How they would withstand a smart-bomb from above is another question. Albania today is still struggling toward a modern economy, with the capital Tirana alight with bars and cafes while the countryside is a hazh-pazh of decrepit mines and local agriculture.

A whole neighborhood of Athens close to the Larissa train station is devoted to inter-Balkan transportation, especially buses to Albania. I was a little apprehensive when they seemed hesitant to sell me a ticket, but there was no problem, just not many backpackers to Albania! The ride from Athens to Tirana passes by through the night, only snatches of the Greek coastline visible by moonlight. The Albanian drivers seem to love the modern Greek highways, clipping along at break-neck speed only slightly moderated by the need to flick cigarette ashes out the window in a gesture of contempt for the rules, if not the actual passengers who indirectly pay their salary. Prohibitions against smoking on the bus apparently do not apply to the driver. Approaching the border we climb high into the hills finally reaching the Albanian border some time after midnight. At that point we all have to leave the bus and queue up to get our passports stamped in a ritual that goes back to time immemorial, aka Checkpoint Charlie. It’s cold, too, I’m here to testify. The superhighway on the Albania side lasts until out of sight of the border, at which point it suddenly degenerates into a country road more typical of the nation, winding through crooks and snags down lonely hillsides into more populated valleys. Thus the country’s long isolation is somehow justified as a consequence of its own geographical fences.

We disembark into the Tirana morning cool but crisp. At least it’s not raining and the sun is up, so I’ve dodged a bullet. Part of the challenge in this space in this time is dodging weather. Winters can be unpredictable even without global climate change, but this one’s been especially so, one of Europe’s worst in years, even chilling the North African coast. Night-riding is great for saving some bucks, but not good for sightseeing. For better or worse you usually have no choice over the matter, and in these parts where the riders are mostly locals, migrant workers at that, night buses are typical, fine if they arrive in daylight, not 3am, even better if they arrive at a station full of shops and coffee, not merely a streetside drop spot. Tirana has no such luxuries. It’s better than Bamako no doubt, but hardly up to modern standards of convenience. One of the main embarkation points is described by Lonely Planet as ‘the muddy spot in front of the train station.’ Mustering buses around the central train station is typically Balkan.

Of course finding a hostel with no sign is always something of a challenge, but I get there finally, with the help of my laptop perpetually open to web pages I’ll need later, fine till my battery poops out. Finding a wi-fi signal is easier then finding a place to plug in. Finding somebody who speaks English seems to be even harder. In these parts, outside of a few people in the tourist industry it’s mute barter and wishful thinking. Smile a lot; it helps. Hardest of all is using a credit card. Supposedly I guarantee all my advance ho(s)tel bookings with my credit card with the threat of being charged a night’s rent if I no-show, but I can’t believe they’d do it, not for sympathy but lack of banking savvy and tax dodging. Fortunately I find my hostel fairly easily, notable considering many such places in Eastern Europe are converted apartment flats with no clue to their existence but the name above the door buzzer. Fortunately their unofficial nature has some advantages, like early check-in, nice after an all-night bus ride.

The problem with frequent country and currency changes of course is that it makes it hard to manage your money without having too much or too little of a currency in a country you’ll only see for a day or two or three. When I realized I was not in love with Albania and had no long-term plans for the future it was a toss-up whether to change more money or make do with the $5 I changed at the border, hard to know without knowledge of local prices, and facing a long bus ride to Bulgaria. After stocking up on carrots and bread and apples, I chose the latter, deciding it’d be enough. I would’ve had cheese too, but the cheese I bought turned out to be butter. That’s different. So rather than violate my restrictions against traveling with butter I butter up an entire baguette in preparation for the trip. Fortunately it lasts me the entire day traveling, but with little variety while in Tirana itself, mostly ‘byreks’, the local version of Mediterranean oily pies. They’re cheap and pretty good, if boring after many many. I tell myself it’s olive oil.

I absolutely refuse to study the language of a country I’ll only visit a few days and which only has a few million speakers. Still I have to eat, and I don’t stay in fancy hotels with fancy English-language menus. The little bit of the language I manage to glean is interesting enough, though by necessity I’m mostly limited to those words recognizable through the Indo-European family, in this case mostly Italian. I don’t know if that’s because the country was practically annexed by Mussolini at one point, and the Italian language’s usage enforced, or because the two both borrowed heavily from Greek way back when in the formative years of Europe. Maybe but for a few accidents of history, instead of getting romantic with our lovers, we’d all be getting Illyrian, or lyrical… hey, wait a minute…whatever… So when I go to the market I start using the Italian I know, given the low level of English I’ve encountered so far. It works. Whether the words are correct or whether they think I’m Italian or whether they use Italian as lingua franca between the local dialects of Gheg and Tosk I don’t know, maybe never will. International English sucks till you need it. Anything’s better than mute barter.

Albanians seem nice enough, though hardly ‘the nicest people in the world’ as one local describes his people. At one point when I was taking a picture of a painted wall obviously commenting on the country’s previous Communist rule, one self-styled street-punk even challenges me threateningly with something like “are you Albanian?” I don’t like people getting in my face unprovoked of course, so I return his anger and up him one with something like, “Is there a problem? If so, bring it on over.” That’s what he wants, right? What’s the difference? He can’t understand me anyway, any more than I can understand him. This is just attitude vs. attitude. He doesn’t need to know that I’m ready to haul ass at a moment’s notice; maybe he is, too. Maybe I’ll call Kissinger. It passes without any further incident and I walk the streets in an anger/adrenalin buzz. If there’s one thing I hate worse than confrontation, it’s people getting in my face.

Casinos line the streets, typical in former Communist countries. Washington didn’t win the war; Las Vegas did. The petrol stations are named ‘Castrati’. I like that. Back in my room it’s mostly EmpTV in the local dialects with France’s TV5 alone among the multi-nationals, so I brush up on my French. At least I’ve got wi-fi in my room. With only $2 in local currency to buy food, I don’t have much of that. No matter, I’ll get more across the border, in Macedonia on the way to Sofia, Bulgaria. See you there.

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