Jul 31, 2008

Roadtrippin the Balkans

Istanbul to Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia overland in 5 weeks. Yep, Susan and I were on a mission, back to moving a bit too quickly to cover lots of ground, but what are ya gonna do. Including many scorching hot buses and trains, I feel I've picked up a taste of the people and cultures in these countries, each with a vast history of which I knew little.  Here are some mini profiles of gracious people I met and our brief interludes:

Konstantin, a 19-year old over-achieving smartie I met on a train. Loves taking 10+ day backpacking trips into the wilderness, extreme snowboarding and is passionate about 4x4 off-roading of the souped-up Suzuki sort.  He and his dad organize competitions, photograph and video them for magazines while competing too. He showed me some clips of his soon to be released DVD documenting the latest competition in Greece and the sport looks like a lot of rough & tumble fun. When not producing DVDs, he's studying at a college for the elite brains of Bulgaria, wherein only 8 or 9 of the 30 kids accepted in his department actually graduate each year. He's not your average 19-year Bulgarian old for sure. His dad, mom and sister are all professional photographers and are rarely in the same place at once, each traveling to different places for different jobs. When I probed about change since Bulgaria became part of the EU, Konstantin said that joining the EU has actually put Bulgarians in a more desperate position financially. Prices have shot up with the Euro, but salaries haven't. This seemed to be a recurring theme as I traveled through other recently joined EU countries. 

A humble day of gifts from strangers. Strolling the farmers market in Ohrid, i asked to take a photo of 3 folks chatting behind their counter selling dry beans. They smiled with a sure! and asked me to sit down with them. After kindly refusing to try their rakiya (home-brewed liquor) since it was 10am, I accepted their offer to buy me a coffee and we talked for some time about life and the states.  That afternoon as I was walking along a beach on the lake a man waved me over to where he, his son and friend were putting their tiny motorboat in the water. While their English was limited, I finally understood that they were insisting I come out on the lake with them in the boat. I was delighted. Sadly after 20 minutes of unsuccessfully trying to start the motor, I thanked them and decided not to wait as I didn't trust the motor to last even if they could start it. Sure enough, an hour later I saw them out on the lake paddling back and we waved at each other laughing.  At sunset I was drinking a beer at an outdoor cafe on the lake. The only other people there were a group of early 20-something friends having a good ole time. After I finished my beer, the waitress came over with another and said it was from the kids who I hadn't even been hanging out with. They could tell I wasn't a local and wanted to show me the Macedonian hospitality. I certainly found out all about it that day!

Susan and I were waiting at a cafe for a bus to take us across the border into Montenegro. A woman sitting at the table next to us (in photo on the left) asked where we are from and was thrilled when we responded the states since she is an Albanian living in NY.  In Albania she owns an evening gown boutique with imported gowns from a NY designer. In NY she owns a bridal gown shop. She asked if we needed any help, then decided she was going to drive us across the border to our destination down Ulcinj about 45 min away (not counting waiting at the border). She called up her brother-in-law and shortly thereafter he and his daughter showed up. She paid for our drinks, stopped to buy us water bottles, treated us to lunch once we arrived and helped us find a room. Says she loves Americans and loves to help people in general. We were greatly touched by her generosity to us strangers. In talking about how people are in essence the same around the world, she commented that people with little money have big open hearts and people with too much money have closed hearts. While a generalization, I have met so many people during these travels who have so very little but are willing to give that little away. It's their culture and that's the way you treat people, of course. It's so simple and natural. This woman not only has a big heart but a huge smile and joyous energy too.  The US concepts of individual success and constant drive for achievement leading to payday certainly aren't the ways of the world wherein family and community and helping each other comes first. I have a lot to learn. 

Boris (on left) lives in the capital but was visiting Kotor with friends for the day. I approached him & his friends at a cafe to ask if they were staying in town as Susan and I had struck out a few times on private rooms that weren't to our liking. Turns out his family owns a guesthouse on the water 10km outside the old walled city. He wasn't sure if we'd like the rooms, so he offered to drive us there to check it out. We ended up staying for a couple nights in a 3rd floor room with a stellar view, only leaving because it was 100 degrees in our room at night and there was no running water in that part of town the whole time we were there. Boris had come back the 2nd night and offered the next day to drive us back to the old town, help us find a room and show us around town for the day. He drove us to a lovely beach that we never would have known about and we talked for hours. He's an artist, but working as a graphic designer in the news industry. Really cool sweetheart who could have just said,' sorry - we aren't staying in town' when i asked, but instead went way out of his way to help out and show us a great time. 

Kuldija - philosopher, caregiver, husband, father, former Bosnian special forces who fought the Serbs in Sarajevo, same age as me. Stayed up til 3am talking about life under a starry sky in a Sarajevo square. I had lots of questions about the war and his time fighting when Sarajevo was under siege by the powerful Serb army surrounding all sides of a city that lies in a small valley. 15 years ago he was a fearless warrior, now he seems like he couldn't hurt a fly. It's hard for me to even comprehend his stories: crossing far into enemy territory in the middle of a foggy night to plant landmines; a successful 5-month hunt for a Serb sniper who only killed women and children - he stared down the sniper in the eyes moments before shooting him; having 7 seconds to escape after being a one-man attack on tanks 20 meters away with a handheld weapon; walking into a minefield barely escaping death once he saw his foot start to pull up a line - making his way out by slowly crawling in the snow feeling ahead with his knife. It took him 1 1/2 years to be able to sleep through the night. He threw away his numerous medals of honor. When he looks at a photo of himself from that time, he doesn't know who that person is, but he feels he has beaten that beast out of him. His wife and 7 year old daughter live in Dublin, but he has returned to Sarajevo  for 18 months so far to care for his mother dying of cancer, because that is what you do in most cultures - take care of your parents. Discussing eastern philosophy, he explained he feels a deep affinity for Native American healers, Tibetan Buddhist monks and Amazonian shamans. His dream is to visit with these three sometime in his life. He has written a book of over 1000 short philosophical insights based on his experiences in the war and hopes to publish it someday. I don't understand war. 

Jul 29, 2008

and then there was one

Seems I've forgotten that usually people write on a blog, not just post photos. Well, I've got a log of catching up to do. Varanasi seems ages ago. Certainly many miles away. So you'll have to excuse stories no longer flowing in chronological order. but time doesn't really matter... 

As I write (of course then it took me a couple weeks to post) I'm on a train to Salzburg after a month touring the Balkans with Susan. Sadly, very sadly, Ariella left us back in Turkey because she had places to go and people to see in France & England (and has recently returned home to Seattle - she's the bravest of us for facing re-entry first!).  Susan and I felt like a limb was missing, and certainly an emotional one was. Now I've lost another limb as Susan and I parted ways in Sarajevo mid-July. She's off to Copenhagen and I'm returning to Austria to visit my old hood. I studied photography in Salzburg back in '95 for a semester and haven't been back since.  So our summer chasing together is officially over - I couldn't have dreamed of two more amazing travel buddies. We have learned from and grown with each other in ways I think I'll continue to realize as time passes. Ladies - I'll be looking for you around corners as I continue my journey and while I likely won't see you, you'll be with me in spirit.