Home again, home again

Home again, home again

After a joyously relaxing 6-weeks in Italy to convince us that maybe we will want to travel again in the future, we have made it back to Boulder safe and sound. We’re slogging through the jet-lag and trying to ignore the agoraphobia triggered from the lack to tall stone buildings in these parts. O and I are now both reachable by email or our cell phones, so drop us a line if you like!

Ciao,

Jenn

Balkan Burnout, part 1

Balkan Burnout, part 1

Oh, Albania – where do I begin? As I sit here in a dingy van waiting for it to fill up so we can depart (bus schedules are a distant dream in these parts), I am dimmly aware of the incessant din of the adjacent “highway” (actually a 2-lane road in poor condition, but still the largest road in the country) bottlenecked full of mini-buses like ours, reckless delivery vans, and Mercedes in all states of newness and (dis)repair. Apparently there is some sort of fine print that goes along with Albanian citizenship that requires one to drive a Mercedes. Maybe there’s some sort of shady deal that’s been worked out to get all the German factory rejects or something. I mean if you plan on using the car to take mountain switchbacks at 60, transport goats or precariously tailgate other cars doing the same, does it really matter if the door’s a little sticky or the engine leaks a little oil?

As we left Ohrid aboard a similar mini-bus crammed with school kids and old ladies with their shopping, we watched the landscape around us subtly changing – becomming a little more rugged, a little poorer, a the roadsides a little more trashed. Our driver left us at the last stop on the Macedonian side of the border and, relying on the dubious advice of Lonely Planet (we should really know better by now), we donned our heavy backpacks and set out for the border on foot. The road was deserted and a little eerie. We passed a sign that had somehow been broken in half. 2 km, it said, to somewhere… The road wound up and down along a grubby stream infested with trash and swarms of bugs – still no border in sight. Then suddenly we rounded a bend and there it was, the edge of Macedonia and the beginning of country #6 of our trip, Albania.

We arrived at the Albanian border checkpoint sweaty and tired and were informed by Bono, who stamped our passports with disappointly bland entry visas, that there was no bus or taxis that could take us into town (Pogradec) but hey, at least the walk was downhill on this side. Immediately on this side of the border it was obvious that we were in a different country- the road signs were all rusted and delapitated and the gun slots of Hoxa’s (in)famous concrete bunkers winked at us from the hillsides. Arriving at the edge of town, donkey carts shared the road with old Mercedes and the mostly dirt road was lined with repetative little cafe-shops all selling the same meager assortment of a few vegetables, potato chips, and instant Nescafe in plastic cups.

We must have looked as bewildered as we felt, because a gaggle of old men and women called to us from the edge of the street- “Angleezi?” “American,” we answer and are happily met with “Ah! America! New York! Boston! Where?!” Through some largely incomprehensible but mutually satisfying exchange the leader of the group helped us flag down a mini-bus to take us into downtown Pogradec. Pogradec is on the opposite side of the lake from Ohrid. At night we had seen its lights twinkling in the distance and we expected it to be somewhat similar to Ohrid, if poorer. Lonely Planet even praised it as not a totally worthless place, and maybe it wasn’t, but it was our first big gritty facefull of Albania.
We exited the mini-bus onto a bustling street. Dusty cars, trucks and buses all vyed for space on the actively decaying narrow strip of asphalt. Blasts of horns filled the air alarmingly- a honk meant “hello”, “you’re in my way”, “you’re not in my way”, “I’m passing you”, “Are you passing me?”, “Do you want me to stop?”, “I’m stopping”, “I’m not stopping”, “Bye!”, and a few things I’m forgetting. The sidewalks along the road were mostl dirt with odd chunks of cement akwardly positioned here and there. Gaping manholes full of trash caused us to either squeeze against the rapidly crumbling buildings or brave the should full of pissy parked-in taxi drivers. The apartment balconies above us were packed full of firewood and big bags or potatoes and onions in preparation for winter. Many of these buildings probably didn’t have electricity at all. We were anxious to leave this frighteningly ragged border town and graftefully found a mini-bus departing for mountainous Korca.

Aboard, we bump and honk our way out of town, crammed in with several more young kids, old ladies, and baggage than this vegicle was surely meant to hold. It begins to rain. Approaching Korca the rain only gets worse. Our driver lets us out at the mini-bus “station”, a chaotic jumble of taxis and vans pointed every which way at the intersection between two broad muddy streets. We take refuge under the cement porch of long abandoned factory and wonder what the hell to do next. Our guidebook tells us that there is a hotel “just around the corner from the bus station”. But is this the “bus station”? Which corner? We peer down the sodden street in vain. The rain thunders on. We decide to get a taxi but the driver has apparently never heard of the hotel we are looking for. He does, however, grasp that we are looking for a hotel and, either helpfully or schemingly, takes us to a hotel farther from the city center. We are exhausted, cold, and wet and decide to make do with the hotel and figure out the rest later. Our room looks out on a whole row of delapitated abandoned buildings mixed in with a few new concrete structures. We know that among them are a couple hotels, cafes, and a university, but from a distance it’s impossible to tell. It’s all just either old concrete or new. The rain slows a little but doesn’t stop. We decide it may be our best chance to get to town so we set out in our rainjackets, umbrellas in hand.

We want to go to Gjirokastra tomorrow morning and know that the bus leaves (from the phantom bus station) sometime between 5 and 8am. So first order of business is to find this bus station, find out when (and if) our bus will depart and then find the town center for some dinner. We ask a few taxi drivers and passers-by for the “autobus station” and they motion for us to continue along the muddy street, passing more of the same – decay and concrete. We happen upon a few encouraging currency exchange offices – could the bus station be near? We round the corner and find…nothing. More asking around leads us in a fruitless circle until it slowly dawns on us that there is no bus station, that buses just depart from an abitrary spot on the street, just like the swarm of mini-buses. We spot a cabbie milling about near the stretch of road that seems most likely to be the “station”. We throw words at him in a jumble of languages: “Autobus! Gjirokastra! Domani! Here! Da?”. Miraculously, he seems to catch our drift and tells us in Albanian that yes, the bus to Gjirokastra departs from here tomorrow at 6, drawing the number with a finger in his palm. One problem solved! But we’ve worked up an appetite.

We continue down the same muddy street, thinking that it’s bound to hit some sort of promising square or intersection eventually. We stumble upon a pleasant, if somewhat derelict looking, park and another collection of gutted buildings but a few more people seem to be milling about. Encouraged, we turn a few promisingly looking corners at random and finally find a street lined with slightly less obviously crumbling builsings and a few cafes, restaurants and shops. We choose an inane pizzarea and look helplessly at the Albania menu. Our waiter looks at us blankly as we rattle off a plea for English? French? Italian? He finally responds, shouting to a chef behind the counter who evidently speaks a little Italian. I somehow manage to order us some salads and a vegetarian pizza. We eat in disheartened silence – what have we gotten ourselves into?

It’s still dark when we leave the hotel the next morning. We retrace our steps to the spot we expect our bus to be and, miraculously, it is there. The antique looking green Mercedes bus is parked crookedly along the street with a reassuring sign for “Gjirokastra” propped in the corner of the windshield. Relieved, we plop down on a nearby curb and before long a grey-haired man steps out of a cafe across the street and approaches us. “Gjirokastra?” he inquires. We nod and, evidently the driver, he fishes a set of keys out of his pocket and opens the luggage hold for us. We snag the front seats of the bus. We’ve read about this journey and are looking forward to the views the broad windshield before us is sure to provide, and the fact that it might make me slightly less likely to hurl all over my unfortunate seatmate.

The jouynet is every bit as twisty and senic as promised. Once outside of Korca virtually every road we take is narrow and in disrepair, precariously clinging to steep mountainsides and the edges of deep gorges. We pass a few other vehiles but much of the time we are alone with the endless forests and scraggly mountaintops. Several times we are forced to stop while a shepard urges his flock off the road. On one particularly hairpinned descent, a teenaged girl runs to the front of the bus and desperately grabs a plastic bag that the driver pulls from a hefty roll stowed under his seat. She wretches into the bag and then causually tosses it out the window where it lands among many similar bags. Ah the Albania wilderness – unspoilt nature dotted with undegradable sacks of puke. I take the opportunity to pop another Dramimine pill.

The Gjirokastra bus stop is extremely underwhelming. Gas stations and cheap concrete buildings, mostly empty, dot the newly paved road. We load our bags into a taxu with some hesitation, trying to remember exactly why spending our time and money in Albania seemed like such a good idea. But the taxi whisks us uphill, away from the smoggy road and ugly cement. Clinging to the higher hillsides is a charming smattering of old stone and half-timbered homes, an imposing hilltop castle and a gently decaying plastered mosque. The streets are cobblestoned and near the center of the old town are a few pleasant cafes and byrek shops. We decide that if we can remember to avoid looking downhill at the quickly spreading, and unabashedly ugly, new town this place is actually quite nice. We find a comfortable hotel with an original hand-carved ceiling and cabinets and a bathtub (!) and settle in for a few day.

to be continued…

The beach in Dhermi (Albania part 2)…

The beach in Dhermi (Albania part 2)…

     The Ionian waves massage the sandy shore on the beach in Dhermi, Albania. The sun is shining and only a lone tribe of thunderheads are in the sky and they’re far out to sea. The incessant sea-breeze has temporarily abated. There are no cement bunkers on this stretch of beach; the trash is minimal, nothing more than a pair of broken beach umbrellas on the rocks behind us and dozens of the logo-less plastic bottles that are ubiquitous in this poverty wracked country. A pair of seagulls skim the surface of the sea and remind me that the Mediterranean isn’t a Dead Sea yet, there’s still enough sea life to warrant the presence of the scavenger gulls. I tell myself, ‘This place is gorgeous.’ Jenn interrupts the flow of my thoughtstream with the question, “Are they doing skeet shooting or what?”

     I’m befuddled; I want to bark: what about the bliss of my reverie?

     Jenn’s beside me, in a bikini and splayed on her towel, tanning her long limbs while my stubby limbs accrue a sunburn. At first it seems that she’s looking at me and waiting for me to laugh, that it’s some asinine joke that my wits havent yet corralled the meaning of…but I realize that her gaze is aimed slightly to my side. I turn around and twenty feet behind us, up a rocky seaside cliff, a young Albanian man with a crew-cut and tight jeans and a purple muscle-shirt toots a Sooped Up rifle. It has a silencer on its muzzle and a long scope with dials to adjust the sight depending on viewing conditions. My heart races and sweat instantly coats my palms. He’s aiming away from us, away from the ocean, at some unknown target, probably a stray cat or dog. I return my gaze to the sea and even though Jen won’t believe my shoddy answer I say, “Naw, it’s a B-B gun. He’s probably shooting at cans.”

     I’ve been anticipating Dhermi for weeks. An idyllic stretch of undiscovered Ionian Coast…that’s how my imagination pegged it. But after a couple of weeks in Albania I know better than to expect comfort and calm here. This country has frayed our nerves; my thoughts feel like a chainsaw dismembering my attempts to bask in the Silence. Still, as Jenn and I depart our mini-bus upon arrival and descend to the seaside village of Dhermi my hopes perk. Maybe we’ve found beauty in this malfunctioning country after All Seems Lost? The road to the village is cluttered with trash; the olive groves on either side of the road are interspersed with half-constructed cement monstrosities with rusty rebars that project ten-feet or more towards the rain clouds. It’s been raining ever since we came to Albania; yesterday the country experienced near record levels of rainfall and we were stranded in a mountain village to endure the onslaught. 

     The road into Dhermi is flooded at each indent and swaths of it are covered with gravel from the roadside. There’s nobody around; I muse that perhaps the villagers fled the Hurricane Force Wind Conditions…the truth is that nobody is here because it’s Off-Season for tourists and even the dilapidated Albanian Coast has tailored its outfit to suit the tourist industry. We get to the bottom of the road and it leads to the Luciana, the only hotel in the village that’s open. We peer around at the surrounding buildings and it’s a thrillingly terrifying sight: cement hotels from the Soviet Era gutted of every last item; shattered lawn chairs are strewn across the beach, topsy-turvy upside-down and often half-buried beneath the sand; dumpsters are toppled on the beach; dozens of cement bunkers line the beach with narrow slits that face he ocean so that machine-gunners can Mow Down invaders in the paranoid delusional imagination of a bygone Yugoslav dictator; dogs howl in the distance and mangy cats study our postures from the maw of a series of cement pipes on the beach; cows lounge in the nicest stretch of sand on the beach to the north of the Luciana. Jenn bites her lower lip and I shove my thumbs beneath the straps of my backpack to temporarily redistribute the strain on my shoulders to my pec’s. It is what it is; this is Albania.

     A young man named Mario shows us to our third-floor room at the Luciana. There’s no toilet seat, the shower is above the toilet, the walls are covered with bloody splotches where mosquitos were slapped dead by the previous occupants…sure, we’ll take the room! I say, “It’s like we’re surfers, we’ll just hafta be grubby and salty for a couple of days and enjoy this beach atmosphere.” Jenn nods her head but doesn’t agree…I don’t really believe what I said either. We’ve slept in one grimy room after the next in Albania and it’s already too old to Sugar Coat it.

     Jenn and I have a quick cathartic spat and then we Hit the Beach. The water is warm enough to swim so I strip to my underwear and barrel into the surf. Jenn maintains composure and walks in the shallows and watches me Whoop It Up as the waves pound me into the sand. Because of the recent storms the waves are big and a danger for a Mountain Man like myself but I only realize this in hindsight. In the Here and Now I see a large swell and shout to Jenn the Hawaiian refrain: “The Big Ones Come In Three’s.”

     Wave Number One hammers me and slams me into the ground and jars free my last iota of Common Sense. The undertow is powerful and pulls me into the maw of Wave Number Two. This time my back is to the shore and the wave slams me backwards; stars dance across my mindscape and the undertow has me at its mercy. I’m thoroughly disoriented when Wave Number Three arrives and tosses me like a rag-doll and rattles my brain against my thick skull. Unfortunately this isn’t Hawaii and the waves don’t come in neat packs of three. The Big Waves keep coming. The undertow has me and pulls me further out, behind the breaking point for the waves and I start to panic. I swim towards the shore with all my might..and only go further out to sea. Jenn is on her feet in the shallows, ready to come Save The Day but more than likely we’ll both get sucked away if she comes to join me out here. The undertow pauses; I shoulder-stroke towards the shore and I’m moving forward. Just as the undertow kicks-in a large wave grabs me and I cruise it towards Jenn; I’m back in the line of breakers and the wave slams me onto the bottom and I crawl through a reinvigorated undertow and I’m in shallow enough water that I withstand the pull and stagger onto the beach. Jenn and I pretend that nothing scary happened; she snaps pictures of me as I assess  my body…I feel like a Hells Angel just stomped me but nothing seems broken. I wave at the camera and sit in the shallow’s and enjoy the last vestiges of that Maximum Dose of adrenaline. Apparently it’s a ridiculous idea to go body-surfing the day after a High Grade storm has passed.

     We go to the hotel and realize tha there’s nothing open along the entire stretch of beach. No restaurants, no hotels, no tavernas or Discos. The Luciana has a restaurant in High Season and with us here tonight it’s making an attempt to be open. Mario hands us a menu; we peruse it and make our selections but when we place our order with Mario he informs us that our choices aren’t available. We settle for Greek Salad, bread and French Fries. For the next four days that’s what we’ll subsist on: Greek Salads, bread and French Fried; now and then we’ll get some yogurt or Eye Eggs or pasta, but only when Mario or his wife work up the energy to cook for us. I tip good in an attempt to bribe some generosity from him but it doesn’t work, his choice of what we eat seems arbitrary and a bit flippant. He speaks rudimentary english but it’s better than my Albanian. He tells me that his parents live in San Francisco; I ask if he’s visited them and he says no, the US government won’t grant him a visa. Why not, I ask. “Because they think I won’t come back to Albania.” He grins and cracks his knuckles and says, “Sometimes I know that they are right.”

     The sunshine comes daily and Jenn gets more tan by the hour. I sunburn during the day and itch all night long. We trek to a distant beach, anticipating cleanliness and a plot of Heaven On Earth unspoilt by cement bunkers or trash. What we get is more trash, golf ball size pebbles along the beach, a cold sea-breeze and a young man dragging a woman by the hair as she screams. Jenn and I watch the abuse from a distance; Jenn says, “Should we just watch them?”

     I grit my teeth and say, “I dunno…I’m going to hafta brain the guy with a rock to stop him, he won’t understand whatever I tell him. Sometimes it’s a bitch being a man.” Just then another man emerges from the forest and separates the two and the three of them retreat to one of the few buildings in the vicinity. Albania is insane, the people here are unpredictable and coarse and as poor and desperate as the people in rural Mexico.

     Jenn and I return to our hotel room, taken aback by the Skip-a-Heartbeat rhythm of Dhermi, ready to escape into our books. With the door to our room shut we can still hear the waves lap the shore and a salty breeze still rushes through the open window…it’s a temporary synthesis of escapism and Balkan Reality. Jenn reads on the bed and I’m on the floor on a spare mattress. The sun glares through the window and becomes obscured in an instant so I glance towards it to see what elicits the obstruction. On our porch is the handsome young man in the purple muscle-shirt and tight jeans. He’s inches from our window, looking towards the piles of trash beside the Luciana, and in his hands  is the Sooped Up rifle. He leans over the rail, takes aim…maybe it’s not a good shot so he pulls back or maybe he squeezes the trigger and it’s so quiet that I don’t hear the shot, but just as quickly as he appeared he disappears. I look at Jenn and she’s still nose-deep in her book, she didn’t see the sniper as he passed like a Ring Wraith…I don’t mention it; instead I delve into the next paragraph of my book.

                                  10.29.10                         Peace!

Another Day On the Road (Albania part 1)

Another Day On the Road (Albania part 1)

     Five-hundred meters before we walk across the Albanian border the sign that warns ‘Only Albania visitors further’ is shot full of holes. The sign that notifies us that Albania is two-hundred meters ahead is sheared across the middle. Heaps of trash appear on the roadside; this trash is concomitant to Albania. The locals litter with pride and smiles…but as I cross the border I’m naive to the facts of this dysfunctional country and choose not to imagine the difficult day ahead.

     It’s a Long Haul from Ohrid, Mecedonia to the Ionian Coast…yet it’s only about one-hundred miles As the Crow Flies. Here’s the Plan: we walk across the border–a three-mile walk– and walk to the lakefront village of Pogredec –a two-mile walk–and then hop a bus to Korca, where we’ll stay for the night and then motor onwards to Gjirokastra. That’s the Plan. From Gjirokastra it’s only a two-hour bus ride to the coast. Easy enough. But it’s the Balkans: Things Always Go Wrong…if there’s a common denominator over here it’s that, Things Always Go Wrong. In Pogredec we wander the main street into town and nobody speaks english so we wander aimlessly in search of the Town Center, where Lonely Planet tells us the bus station is located. The first ATM we come across won’t take our cards…so we’ve got euros and an assortment of monies from other countries but no Albanian lekes.

     Everyone looks classic Mediterranean here; olive colored skin and eyes so dark that the iris and pupil seem to blend together. The pronounced change is a shock; only hours ago we were in Ohrid and the peeps were white with black hair and thick dark eyebrows, more Romanian in appearance than Greek. An old man accost’s us with a single sentence in english: “Where are you from?” America. His eyes light up and I smile and hope that the rumor is true: Albanians love Americans for helping liberate Kosovo from the Serbs.

     We say, “Bus Station”…”Auto skool”…”Korca.” He nods and waves to a mini-bus that passes by on the road and the bus screeches to a halt. The side door slides open with a squeal  and the old man issues us into the bus and spits rapid-fire Albanian at the driver and the an old woman seated in the front slams the door closed and we’re off. Minutes later we’re in downtown Pogredec; we pay the driver in euros and he chews his lip and grants an indecipherable nod; he deposits us amidst a scene of poverty and filth that trumps all else we’ve seen in the Balkans, and this is supposed to be a quaint village. Usually it’s only the larger municipalities that look like Sister Cities to the Jersey dump.

     The gutters are rife with crushed and dusty plastic bottles. The sidewalks are uneven and shattered and entire sections are gone, replaced by puddles of burping mud. The restaurants are filled with leather-faced old men and plump flies; the roadside fruit stands are filled with bruised bananas and empty wood crates and old toothless women that chomp their soggy cigarette butts. The street is full of Peugots and Mercedes’ that scuttle to any convenient opening en-route to the next congested intersection. Car horns HonkHonkHonk; drivers shout, spittle flies, stray cats duck for cover. Old brick walls lay tumbled across the sidewalk, trod upon countless times and broken into shards that look like Bacon Bits, unnoticed by the school children that skip along in front of us. Jack-hammers in the distance; in the shop beside us a carpenter repairs a door and his electric saw rages against the grain. Jenn and I share one of those meaningful looks, the kind of look that’s a Stand-In for a thousand words. In summation, the look says, “Oh shit, here we go again.”

     We wander the main street, perplexed by the horrifying reality that surrounds us and curious about this juxtaposing of a populace seemingly tailored for a far more prosperous town. The young men are fit and handsome, the women are slender and beautiful. The locals don’t appear to notice the derelict condition of this place; this cognitive dissonance was in Kosovo too, but nowhere in Kosovo was the cityscape destroyed like it is here in downtown Pogredec. After several blocks we stumble upon a caravan of mini-buses and taxis. This conglomerate is what passes for a bus station in Albania; one town after the next, we’re going to Learn the Hard Way that buses arrive wherever they want and depart incongruously from wherever they want. The cabbie’s and mini-bus drivers have each other parked-in; it’s some strange form of chauvinistic competitive banter…in a country where half of the men are unemployed they get their kicks as best they can.

     As we approach the horde several drivers serenade us with city names. We can’t understand a single word that comes out of their mouths so I say, “Korca.” They quiet and perk their ears and I repeat the word, “Korca. Korca.” Jenn tries some Italian on them and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t but they guide us to a mini-bus, point us into the backseat and they say, “Korca.”  That’s that; within minutes the mini-bus is full and we’re on our way to Korca.

     The interior of the mini-bus is filthy and my Germ Freak tendencies are activated so I pull my hoodie over my hair and my cuffs over my hands and make sure that no skin touches anything but Jenn. We kiss and then she’s off into her own personal World of Hurt as Car Sickness sets-in and she combats it with Deep Breathing exercises. This battle with Car Sickness is about to become daily fanfare as we wind our way along the shoddy pockmarked mountain roads of Southern Albania.

     Lord have mercy: the driver throws a coke can out the window and a passenger follows the lead and chucks an empty pack of cigarettes. And an empty lighter too. The roadside is littered with trash, but that’s the case all over the Balkans, maybe even all over the world. As I study the beautiful landscape my eyes dart from one pile of trash to the next. In the middle of a farmer’s field there’s an overturned dumpster and the decay of the spilt trash suggests that it’s years old. Why would the farmer remove this one pile of trash when the entire country is filled with similar piles?

     It starts to rain; it starts to pour buckets and the driver exercises more caution than I’ve ever seen before by a mini-bus driver. Usually these guy’s are semi-psychotic Over The Hill baldies full of Road Rage. His caution is heartening and helps Jenn cope with her Car Sickness a bit better and also affords more opportunities to study the world as it rushes past. We arrive in Korca and it looks worse than Pogredec. The driver drops us off at a wild intersection surrounded by colossal abandoned Soviet era factories with all of the windows shattered and the walls torn open and stripped of wiring and pipes. Packs of wild dogs howl and menace at the boundaries of the factories and they’re not perturbed by the rain. This is one of those difficult moments of travel that we never seem to recall when we’re in the future (inshaa’allah), at home and reminiscing over a holiday dinner. But when these moments are Here and Now, when they surround you and are inescapable and the sounds pluck at your heartstrings with discord and the sights make your soul want to Return To Sender, what to do, oh what to do? Jenn and I huddle beneath a cement awning; we tighten the hoods of our raincoat’s around the rim of our pale faces; we lean our backpacks against the brick wall at our back and hug each other and stare wide-eyed at the strange world that is all around. From here, we know that anything can happen.

                                         10.23.10                                         Peace…..

     The gutters are rife with crushed and dusty plastic bottles.

Lulled by an Inland Sea

Lulled by an Inland Sea

Our arrival in Ohrid was a welcome relief from the chaotic string of destinations we had just passed through – Timisoara, Belgrade, Skopje, Prizren, Skopje again. It had all melted into a blurry amalgamation of train compartments, bus stations, hotel rooms, and similarly charming piazzas. Ohrid immediately felt different. Open to the vast mountain-rimmed lake, it felt marine, sleepy, cozy. It felt like the kind of place you might spy a wizened fisherman taking a mid afternoon doze in his moored boat. Maybe it was just the feeling of being on the water, but it felt more heartily Mediterranean than any of the spots we’d been so far.

Our first morning was rainy, a heavy consistent rain that left the fading pink stone churches looking brilliant again and the mature heavy-leafed trees, curving organically around the old-town homes, sodden and radiant with chlorophyll. From our warm perch at the window of a nearly empty restaurant we marveled at the unending staccato beat of rain on the awning and the mist encroaching in the far ends of the cobblestone lanes. We lingered over our banana and nutella crepes, hopeful that the deluge might let up, but were forced to conclude that it would not.

Hoping to avoid aimless wandering in this weather, and without even a tenuous Lonely Planet map to help us this time, we asked our bored-looking waitress if she could help us locate our accommodations I had found and booked online. (I had actually stumbled upon the website for this guesthouse way back in Boulder and had even been using one of their photos – a view from the deck – as a desktop background. How strange and wonderful to have that view now be the background to reality). The waitress looked confused by the address we provided and had never heard of the guesthouse. We began to resign ourselves to a long wet trek but then she went over to confer with another table full of locals. After much debate and pointing to all sorts of different spots on a free tourist brochure map, they settled on the correct location and helpfully sent us on our way.

We wound our way through the narrow alleyways, cobblestones shiny with wet, and began to ascend a mind-bogglingly steep lane crisscrossed by thin stone bars that seemed to have been laid on a scale to aid horses not humans. Out of breath and only half way up, we hoped this was indeed the right street. (Apparently street signs are too uptight to have a place here). The street flattened out and, relieved, we spotted a small sign pointing to our lodgings. We began to descent a set of stairs and looked uncertainly up at a half-built structure next to us, strewn with building supplies and a few bags of trash – this place was supposed to be nice. A little hesitantly we knocked at the broad wooden door and were soon admitted by Pavel, our squat grandfatherly host. “You must be Jennifer!” he greets us excitedly, wringing our hands. “Come, come! I show you your room.” He leads us down a long stone hall, the floor undulating slightly to mirror the ground beneath. The hall is lined with quirky treasures: a length of ancient Roman water pipe, an orthodox censer, a spikey Medieval-looking device that could be either a torture instrument or a waffle iron. The corridor winds around a couple of sharp turns and we come to our room. Our trepidation melts away instantly as we lay eyes on our wall of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking our flower-lined porch and the stunningly beautiful lake. Pavel shows us the large kitchen we can use and then leaves us to unpack and unwind.

It doesn’t take long before we’ve gratefully fallen into a pleasant routine of lazy mornings, long walks, and lots of home-cooked meals. Lacking new cities, new sights, and new transportation hassles to overcome, we are able to drink in the smaller details of this place. Pavel brings us a big bowl of fresh figs from his tress and we begin to notice these trees all around town, laden with heavy Hershey’s Kiss-shaped fruits. Lemon tress, myriad technicolor flowers, and a vines bearing grapes and what seems to be kiwis (?!) peak out of narrow courtyards everywhere and spill off balconies and front stoops. Gnarled grandmas tend homemade grills of roasting peppers in front of their houses and mince up our steep street in their flimsy house shoes, quick and never out of breath.

We find ourselves entranced by simply watching gulls dipping down to the steely-blue water looking for their lunch, or watching hearty locals, bundled in their puffy nylon jackets, staking out open air cafe tables as though believing their jaunty disregard for the frosty air might change the weather. It doesn’t. Days blur together as we become increasingly familiar with our lakeside idyll. And amidst the hypnotic lapping of the water and the many hours spent luxuriating in snug cafes, I find myself waxing philosophical:

Ohrid is one of the loveliest, most peaceful places I have ever been. It’s one of those spots where you feel immediately comfortable and at ease. It’s almost a shade of the feeling of “home” come to comfort us on the other side of the world. It’s sort of ironic though that the most enjoyable places to travel are places that provide that homey comfortability. Travelling to difficult locals is undoubtedly interesting but trying as well. It all leaves the unanswerable question of why do we long to travel? And, simultaneously, why do we long for home?

It seems some sort of mysterious interplay between the thrill of the unknown and the rawness  of the new and unexplored coupled with the necessary comfort of familiarity and the ease of that comfort. Perhaps it is possible to adopt an outlook to home that will allow some of the wonder of the traveler’s perspective to enter? It’s a strange experience to morph into this role of “traveler” in the world. It’s an identity that feels a little ghostly. You float through these places as an observer, your interactions leaving only a faint fleeting impression on the worlds you pass through.

There is something about the maddeningly interminable nature of the routines and cycles of home that makes everything appear permanent, though falsely so. The view of the traveler, divorced from the ruts of ordinary existence, offers a truer glimpse of the capricious world, turning and churning out life without much regard for each of our tiny little perspectives on things. It’s simultaneously humbling and freeing to witness so many cities, towns, villages, cafes, and countries that all exist totally impervious to our chance arrival or departure. Maybe part of the appeal of travel is that is somehow enacts the ultimate universal drama, allowing you to see a world spinning on without you…

~Jenn

Mysticism in Ohrid…

Mysticism in Ohrid…

I sit at a lakeside cafe in Ohrid and watch the mist swirl above the opaque gray water. Music plays on the cafe’s stereo and a family seated at the table behind me spews idle chatter, but my mindscape is immaculate. In Ohrid the days go by so fast. Jenn and I have already adopted a leisurely routine; I’ve long since learned that the mechanization of routine kills time in droves. It’s a relief from the frenetic journey that we’ve so masochistically chosen for ourselves until this point in our journey. It’s a respite from the sublime storm that defines Shoestring Travel through recent War Zones and former Soviet Satellites.

With the tranquility comes the Silence. The emptiness that hides between thoughts and in the breathy pause of a stifled syllable; the dislocation from a sense of time that accompanies the end of a stream of thoughts when no new stream begins. The Silence that heralds the Lifting of the Veil; the Silence that shrivels my sense of self and simultaneously spreads it across the backdrop of the galaxy.  The Silence that eats my name and vision, the Silence which I gladly feed and consider to be the foundational metal in the crown that is my life.

Jenn and I arrive in Ohrid in the evening and awake to a steady drizzle. As soon as we Hit The Streets in search of the apartment that we booked online the drizzle transitions to rain. Fog hugs the boats in the harbor and hides the Cross at the top of the monastery near the waterfront. We open our umbrellas and tread the narrow cobbled lanes and at last find Grebnos Apartments on a steep lane that overlooks the Old Town and the lake. With its partially-constructed upper-half and a pile of powdered cement beside the entrance, the apartment is not the most appealing place from the street. Jenn and I share a glance of trepidation…this town experiences a large influx of tourists during the summertime but nobodies here now so there are dozens of similar Low Rate Apartments available. We’re tired of being On the Move and stick with Grebnos and the apartment rewards us for doing so. The kitchen is large and ideal for Jenn’s Spread It Across the Countertop cooking style–we’ve eaten gourmet vegan dinners every night and gourmet brekkies too. The bathroom is built of cold stone but the chill is countered by a heater lodged above the shower. The bedroom is cosy but large enough for us to do yoga; an expansive porch overlooks the village and the lake. And for the first time since we Hit The Road it’s silent at night…no need for earplugs to coax me to sleep.

The town is lively and full of locals and carries the same Balkan Airs as Veliko Tarnevo (Bulgaria) and Prizren (Kosovo). The men strut around in tracksuits and Warm-Up Gear; most of them have buzz-cuts and a pack of cigarettes in their back pocket. The women all want to be sexy and dress for Maximum Objectification; perhaps it’s the local Muslim influence but I’ve noticed less cleavage here than the other places we’ve been, excluding Kosovo. But the gist of the style holds fast throughout the region, it looks like the youth are Living Fast and Betting Big.

The beach at the other end of town is deserted and rocky and not conducive to lounging; the abandoned clubs on the shoreline pose a post-apocalypse scene with their scattered beach furniture and half-filled trash bins, but really it’s Nothing New for these seasonal tourist destinations. I’ve seen enough of these places to understand how it works: the locals get amped for the Tourist Season–new paint jobs and Sound Systems and CD’s that consist of the latest songs on the Billboard Top 100–and then the blitzkrieg passes with the arrival of autumn and the locals loosen their belts, let their hair down and relax. Off-Season visitors are oftentimes a nuisance except to the few wily hustlers with a keen eye towards making Easy Money.

The town is a framework for inner-transformation, or at least for the remembrance of who I am. Life in Boulder, and On The Road too, is so much about sensations and impressions and Life Style Manipulations that I start to think that these are what I am. How I choose to react to catching the wrong bus in Kosovo starts to speak for my character and Who I Have Become; how I scrutinize my Responsibilities As The Man who must protect Jenn from the wiles of the Big Bad World start to shape my Self Respect.

And then Ohrid happens: we settle for a week and my myriad delusions start to crack at the seams and the Silence seeps through. The Silence that was there when a horde of wasps dive-bombed me as a five-year-old in my Grandparents’ future backyard and left me crumpled and stunned that life could hurt so much. The Silence that was sprawled across my mindscape after that ecstatic First Kiss in Middle School. The Silence that was there as I sat in a cow-pie in the early morning darkness and wept the last tears of goodbye to my deceased Grandfather…hours before I was actually notified of his death by my father. The Silence has been nearer to me than my memories or my friendships or any scenarios that my mind has ever devised. It’s more ‘me’ than all of the imaginings that mind has created to lend ‘me’ an air of individual autonomy. For me, this is the essence of what travel has to offer: the recollection of what I truly am and the realization that being Odysseus is simply a wonderful and unfathomable experience.

Peace!          10/11/10. Cafe on Lake Ohrid, Macedonia