Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece

Sorry guys, I have had internet trouble. I also had some long stories to write up, and here they are:

May 14th

I had an eventful day yesterday. I am currently in a beautiful hostel in Shkoder, Albania. I did not plan to be here so soon, nor to stay here today, but I don’t plan much of anything ever, it seems. Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

I left Dubrovnik after a long night that involved a lot of a local village liquor called “Grappa,” which is distilled from grapes. It is a clear liquor that burns going down, and it is liberally distributed in the common room of the hostel I stayed at. I think it helped to cure my whooping cough, amazingly, and despite a large portion I felt good the next day, though I slept little. After a huge climb out of Dubrovnik, I rode about 70 kilometers, crossing into Montenegro and had a very good day overall. I found a campsite immediately after I decided to look, which entailed climbing up a hill that rose between the coastal road and the beautiful blue Adriatic. I slept heavy and woke up feeling quite tired.

After packing up I thought about how to proceed. I was near the top of the hill, and rode a little ways back towards the highway, thinking it would be easier to ride down the way I came and continue through the valley. It is a very busy road though, with almost no shoulder. A little voice in my head also insisted that avoiding a few hills was not good practice, so I resolved to continue up the hill and wind through the quiet roads nearer the coast. I quickly realized that, from my body’s perspective, this was a mistake. The roads, which I kept getting lost in, plunged and soared savagely, and I was almost spent after grinding my way through. When I emerged at last from this draining maze and found the highway, it was precisely at the point where the highway began to ascend. So, more climbing. There is a lot of glass on the road, and the shoulder is simply a mass of spilled cement covered with gravel. It was an uncomfortable stretch of road, to say the least. At this point, though still fairly level spirited, I could not help thinking of this day as a “Job day.” I felt tested, but I took the challenge light-heartedly. So, I had lost time getting lost and had drained my energy early in the day, but this was only the tip of the iceberg.

I make it to the top of this hill and descending into Budva on a steep grade. It is necessary to mention that I noticed last week that my brakes are wearing thin, but, trying to be economical, I thought I would run them down until I experienced some discomfort. Well, how uncomfortable is it to smash into the back of a car that stops very suddenly? Very. I was following close because I feared the car behind me would try to pass me, though I was keeping up with traffic. Two cars in front, someone stops very suddenly and it continues up the line. Me, I hit my brakes but there is not even close to enough space to stall my momentum. I try to angle a little into the ditch and succeed in jumping off my bike before it smashes into the car, putting two nice dents in the bumper, and ripping off my two left panniers. Me, I am informing them of what language I speak in a very improper way. The car stops, a man in the back open the door and asks if I am okay. I say yes, apologize, and they drive off. Well, better to hit a car than to be hit, and this one was my fault. I hope they did not mind the dents when they got home and had a look.

So, after re-attaching my panniers and calming down a little, I continue, becoming suspicious of this day. It is alright though, I feel like I am owed one here and there. I am almost across town when I realize that my bike is very bouncy, and I am thinking maybe my front forks are getting worse. It gets so bad that I stop and inspect the bike again, come to find that my forks are fine, but my back tire is deflated. This is okay, we have a consistent theme, and I do not resist. I pump it up and ride to a more pleasant spot. I eat some snacks and fix my tire, taking it easy in the shade, recuperating from all the climbing. It is very hot though, and I am out of water. I am determined to stop at the first place I see, of course, and I do. I walk in, and there is no bar, everyone is busy, and it is a fairly nice place. To get some service, it seems I will have to sit. I am given a menu and, a little uneasy, I cave in and end up ordering some food. I really only wanted an espresso and some juice, but this felt a bit cheap, in my “Job day” mindset. So, I order a kebap. I thought this would be like a Doner kebap, but it is Chevapi, which is basically a huge pile of sausage links with bread and some fries. I eat until I am sick, but I cannot waste the meat; some animal died to sustain me, and I honor it by transforming it. Stuffed, I have my water filled and continue on, grudging my unnecessary purchase a little. From there the day is okay, I am energized and I ride over a lot of hills. It must have been a strong espresso, for I just kept going and going. It was about seven before I thought about camping.

I stop and look at my map. I am near the Montenegrin-Albanian border and there is camping on the far side, but I missed a turn somewhere and need to ride another 6 or 7 miles to get back on track. It looks too far away, and I simply plan to camp as soon as I find a place. I am pleasantly surprised by how much distance I made! I find the road I need to take, and it is completely torn up, all the asphalt is gone and it is just packed gravel. It’s not bad riding though. It is actually very beautiful, and becoming less populated, so the camping looks promising. It is not long though, before my energy just disappears. It was as if my tank ran completely out, and I literally coast to a stop. Well, that mountain of meat and the espresso are gone! I pull out a Snickers bar and eat it. This will get me to camp. I ride slowly along. The road narrows, passing through a valley, with nice fields on either side, but hey all look private. There is also a lot of equipment around, and I wonder whether the road crews will work tomorrow, which is Sunday. I spot a perfect side road- it is, in fact, obstructed from normal traffic because some machinery had dug a ditch across it. If I can lift my bike up a four- foot tall cliff somehow, I will have a private and safe spot. I am about to try this, but the traffic is a little busy, to my surprise. I don’t want to get caught, so I ride on until these cars pass, and double back. I arrive back at the road, but now I see a cyclist approaching, with what look like bags. Geez, I can’t catch a break (Job day)! I stop and sort of rummage through my bags. Slowly he rolls up.

He is a greying man, fit, on a good bike, 21-speed, with a backpack sitting in a basket on the back. He has a water bottle full of tools attached to the frame. He shakes my hand, and asks me, in Albanian, if I am going to Albania. I say Albania, yes. He points to himself and indicates that he is from Albania, then points to me. “U.S.A,” I say. He smiles, shakes his head, asks, “Deutschland?” No. “English? No. “Italia, no, no Italiano…” “United States.” I pause, and then say, “America.” His face lights up, “Ah! America!” He then points up the road and makes a “we go” motion with his hand, accompanied by a swishing, silent whistle sound. Oh man. He knows I am going to Albania, and he looks like he wants me to go with him. It is almost dark at this point. Why didn’t I say I was going the other direction? Bashfulness. Really, I need to work on this sense of guilt- in my mind, no one has any business riding such a road at this hour, and I can’t help but assume that others are likely to think the same thing. I act sheepish, as if people can read my mind. Really, I am just a bad liar.

Well, he rides on a little ways, and I rummage some more, hoping he continues. No, he gets off his bike and waits. Shit. I am caught, it seems. Hopefully this guy is not crazy, eh? I will be a liar if I do not go, and so I go. I hesitantly ride away from camp into the gathering darkness and Albania. I see thenhumor of the situation and its consistency with the theme though, and soon accept my fate. It is a little strange, for we do not speak. I wonder if he is going to host me, and am torn about this. On the one hand, I sort of hope so, for he has me stuck and will cost me money if I have to ride into a town. On the other hand, he is a strange Albanian man I encountered out here on a quiet road in the evening and I would rather camp or stay at a hostel… The Day of Job is reaching a crescendo, morphing into an Albanian Odyssey. We are headed towards Shkoder, I guess. I have no idea how far it is, but if he can do it, so can I, right? What happens from there, I am curious.

The Gatekeeper

It is soon apparent that we are within this man’s domain. There is a sign that says “Albanjia” to our left that leads up a hill, looks like a detour. We pass it. Around the corner the way is barred by two big pieces of machinery, guarding a newly excavated tunnel. I think we need to turn around, but no, he beckons me to him and we carry our bikes up and around, scaling a little talus slope. I lug my bike over without breaking an ankle, then he tells me to wait. He yells. He yells again. A man comes out from around the tunnel, beyond which I can see some trailers or something. This guy must be watching the site. They talk, almost heatedly, pointing back at the detour, the trucks, the tunnel. I wonder if I am any part of this conversation. My companion shakes his head a few times, waving his hands dismissively. I wonder if we are able to pass- it is a raw hole in the hill blown out, with arch-shaped pieces of rebar dangling above, the ground still only a litter of rock and debris. They end their conversation, this tunnel man smiles at me, and we go through. We coast down to a little bridge and start uphill. While we are climbing this man’s leg suddenly seizes. He tells me, “One moment,” dismounts, points at his leg, says “Accident.” I nod. He raises a finger, drops his pants to the ground and pulls his underwear up. Ah, is it getting weird so soon? I am surprised, but unconcerned. He points to a scar the length of his thigh and explains that there are thirteen large screws in his leg. I make a car noise accompanied by an imitation steering wheel. He nods. Ah. I pedal slowly up the hill as we walks his bike up. Well, at least we will go slow, which is good, because I am spent. We ride on in silence. We hit pavement, and then the valley opens up and houses appear. This man wishes everyone he passes a good night, and I see that at least he is a man of the community. “Poppoli Albanian, but, Montenegro,” he says. I nod. We ride a bit more, then he pulls off the side of the road. “One moment.”

He goes over to a sink, washes his hands and drinks. “De mont,” he says, and after some signing, I understand that the sink lets forth fresh mountain spring water. I wash my face and hands, then drink. We resume our journey.

The Three Translators

The going is easy, and I am becoming excited by this strange nocturnal ride. We stop again at a cafe. He comes out with a glass of water for me, but I show him I have plenty of water. I wait, but soon hear amongst the garble of uncouth language the word “American” repeated a few times, and soon three middle aged gentleman come out and shake my hand, welcoming me to Montenegro. I thank them profusely, and we chat for a while. They tell me this is a good man, that they know him. They say he wants to know if I am staying at a hostel or a hotel. Ah, there is my question answered. I say “hostel,” of course. The three men tell me to be careful, and I tell them thank you, but that I feel safe here, to which one of them tells me not to be so trusting and to watch my back, which is a bit foreboding. I seem more innocent than I am, however. If anything, I err on the side of the paranoid! Really, aside from exercising common sense and caution, it only becomes more evident as I travel that people are the same everywhere; mostly normal, not psychos. We bid these three farewell and carry on.

We have our tail lights on at this point. This man has a habit of riding near the centerline every time a car passes, waving his hands at every car coming our way, maybe to make sure they see us. I wonder why he doesn’t have a headlight. He also says hello to everyone we pass, at times yelling at specific residences to let them know he is passing. We come upon a man holding a light before a tractor, to which a cow is hitched. We wait for another tractor to pass going the other way before we slip by.

This man, whom at first I took for an aging injured fellow, is now setting a pace. He does not have near the weight I have, and I doubt he has ridden as far as I have today. I am again running on empty, getting shaky. We get to the border where there is a long line of cars, which my guide passes. After a moment of hesitation, I follow him. We go to the other side of the booth where my guide beckons for my passport and hands it and his i.d. to the lady. She hardly even glances at me, and passes us along to the next booth. We get our i.d.’s back, mine with a special paper about Americans registering in Albania. I take this opportunity to pull a pack of Oreos, to which my guide chuckles, and we continue on, me cramming Oreos in to get some energy. At the border he was winding up a small headlight, but it is incredibly weak. So, I turn on my Light and Motion Urban 500, which lights up the road better than any scooter out here. The man utters a sound of surprise and says, “Wow, super!” and we continue. (I had been waiting to turn it on because it is bright, and the battery is somewhat limited.) Now we are safe and we ride into the outskirts of Shkoder. I see what looks like the minaret of a mosque lit up in the distance. We pass a large body of water. We turn right across a bridge, where men are setting large fishing poles. I see a large hill to our left with the remains of a castle. On my right, a carnival with lights aglowing. We turn left before the hill and ride into town. Everything looks a little rundown, but people are all over, in bars and restaurants, walking with their families. “Three kilometers,” He says. We zip through, skirting the cars. I am taking it all in- I did indeed see a minaret, and I see three more, lit up as religious centers are in cities at night. There are two big mosques, and one is sending out a lovely, cryptic, Arabic chanting, which emanates across the whole city: the call to prayer. At length he stops me, and we turn into what seems to be an alley, but no, there are the hostel signs! He rings the bell, and we wait. The door opens on the second ring, and in we go. He comes with me, makes sure the hostess can receive me. This hostel, behind an alley gate, opens up into a nice yard, and light issues from an outdoor living room where people are hanging out. I hear someone say “Oh, hey!” I look, and it is Brock, a fellow cyclist from California I met in Dubrovnik! “I knew I would see you,” I said. I had been wondering about that on the way in, the distance seemed right. Safely delivered, this man takes my hand, and touches his forehead to mine on either side. I am not familiar with this gesture, and we are both very sweaty, but I go with it (it turns out this is an appropriate, normal gesture for the occasion). We had bonded on this silent ride.

I turn, totally surprised to be here. This place looks super cool. The hostess looks like she came straight out of Eugene, Oregon. Very hip. There happens to be a coworker of my guide’s sitting here playing chess with Brock, and he informs me that this man rides to Kotor and back every weekend and runs 50 kilometers during the week. Insane! That means he cycled more than twice as much as I had today. What an athlete! I check in and sit down, drink a beer, which turns into a few, and go to bed.

I wake up early the next morning to a delicious homemade breakfast. I was considering going with Brock on his route, but I was very tired, and, as everyone said I would, elected to stay another day. The night before I had been drinking with a goofy, lanky Belgian who spoke English with a heavy French accent, a kindly Australian, and a somewhat despondent, charming Swiss man. All these guys are younger, still rambunctious, and largely responsible for keeping me up late, continually filling my glass. I call them the three musketeers.

The day is spent talking with interesting people from all over- a humorous New Zealander and his German girlfriend, an Israeli and his German girlfriend, a German man and his German girlfriend, some Hollanders. I also got some errands done, at last replenishing my camping fuel at a store right across the street. I also wanted a pair of swimming trunks, and our hostess directed me to an amazing thrift market! It was down an alley inbetween two street vendors. When you emerge on the other side, you find 15 or 20 vendors all with tables covered with piles of used clothes. There are hats, belts, and bags as well. This place is like the Goodwill bins back home, you just dig through piles! It was amazing, and I am glad I cannot carry much, because I could have spent all day there.

Shkoder and Albania have blown me away, in a number of ways. It is strange to wake up in a place with so much Turkish influence. The traffic is insane, everyone just getting to where they are going, pedestrians, cyclists, scooters- most of which are a cart in front, not sure how they steer them- and a lot of cars, stopping in the middle of the street, driving backwards, honking, halting, chaotic. It is an art to cross the street, best to avoid crossing at intersections. The sidewalks are filled with purveyors of fruits and vegetables. The cafés are full of inquisitive men, old and young. I will admit I was quite intimidated on my first walk around the town, it is definitely a poorer place. I was excited by the clothing market, however, really a little bazaar, and returned triumphant to the hostel. The three musketeers eventually roused about midday, and in the meantime I got a little writing done. I discovered that the Belgian volunteers there, and has been for two weeks. The Swiss had been there a while as well, and the Australian seemed to be in the same boat. With our lovely hostess, we planned to go to the lake. Eventually we did, and the Swiss drove us there in a Land Rover that belonged to a German friend of the hostess. He drove like a madman, but we made it. We swam and basked in the sun on this beautiful lake. We were on a private beach, that of a family friend of our hostess (whose name is Ani). On the way in we greet a lot of people eating grilled fish and other delicacies, sitting around tables all around the house. We go around the corner to a quiet beach, and it is not long before a boy comes around with a large bottle of delicious white wine and doles us out glasses.

The general unease I felt in the morning began to dissipate. Our conversation was rich, and the landscape beautiful. This was only the second time I have been swimming so far, and I loved it. We return to the hostel because Ani and Valentine, the Belgian, have to work. The rest of us organize a barbeque and head out after groceries, but it is Sunday and the butchers are closed- the Christian ones, that is. We go over to the shops around the Mosque and find what we are looking for. It is wild to see whole sheep behind the counter. In one shop I saw a Milwaukee Sawzall hanging on a hook, the blade of which is gory. Real, normal butchers. I am quite taken with Shkoder now, and feel quite at home walking around. When we return, the Aussie (His name is Connor, and the Swiss is Chris) and I get the grill going and then the rest of us prepare the vegetables. It is hours before we eat, but when the food comes around it is delicious. The night is fairly young, but I am quite drunk, I admit, and exhausted, as I had only slept 5 hours the night before. When the group shifted to the back of the house (they close down the front living room at ten to keep down noise) I took the opportunity to turn in. The next morning I woke up early again, determined to hit the road. The puppy attacks my feet first thing and I play with him for a long time. There are three dogs and a puppy they found on the street by the way, and I am in love with the little bastard. These along with the yard and the living rooms, the home-made art on the walls, the layout of the house- a two story affair, my room right off the front hall- the homemade breakfast, the no-shoes-inside rule, these rambunctious boys and our sweet hostess, it felt very much like home. I ran into another pair of cyclists, a Spaniard and his German girlfriend (seriously, very strange percentage of German girlfriends) and talked to her in particular for sometime. They informed me that it was supposed to rain all day. Shoot. I knew that if I didn’t leave now, I would be moving in. Maybe I should have. A soft farewell and some big eyes from Ani made it feel very wrong to leave. I miss the musketeers something awful, despite their diabolical influence, I hope they contact me! Valentine still needs to show me his music. I was so torn up by leaving this beautiful place that I suffered quite a lot on the ride out. I left a piece of my heart there, and when you do this it gets harder to leave the further away you get, until you pass a threshold and are “liberated.”

Some pics of the hostel:

he ride was flat and straight for a long time. When I got into the hills, I took a shortcut and got some strange vibes from the people I encountered, I felt very out of place. Everybody wanted to talk to me, calling me to eat at their shops, asking me questions. The road was very bad, and as I returned to the highway I was solicited by a man under a bridge, whom I ignored, of course. All this made me very nervous. I rode up into the hills and had trouble finding camping, but eventually did. It was a high-strung, emotionally taxing day, but at least it did not rain before I was set up.

This morning as I was breaking camp a man sent a herd of thirty goats down where I was and stressed me out. He did not come down himself though. I was feeling very nervous this morning, and tired. Chock full of self-pity and fear, to be honest. Between the pain of leaving my Shkoder family and the culture shock, I was very uncomfortable. There is a scared little boy in me that commanded quite a presence, and I thought about giving up the trip even. Albania is the first country that I would say is not safer than the States, but I was put ill at ease pre-emptively. Throughout the day, I waved, nodded, or spoke with almost everyone I passed. What I took for harassment initially is simply the way people are down here, and the children helped me to see this. Every child here is confident and says hello, gives high fives. All young people want to practice their English, ask where I am from, where I am going, what my nationality is, what my name is. Almost always I answer a question and they yell another as I ride off. I think they are bored, and they also want to get a reaction as well, just friendly rascally joking. I mess with the kids, lying about my nationality and saying hello in as many languages as I can. Seriously, if there are ten kids, each one says hello. “Hello, hello hello, hello,” all day. America, Gunnar, Singapore. And they are all rogues! If I stopped everytime someone wanted to talk I wouldn’t have made it ten kilometers.

Even the food, to my amusement, reflected these interactions:

Of course, I found excellent camping mid-day. There was a lot of climbing though, and I hadn’t made much progress, so I pushed on. The roads are just abominable by the way. Ancient Romans would scoff derisively at the state of them. I crossed a bridge that was just mud and gravel. As a result, people are all over the road, in order to avoid potholes and one must be on the alert at all times. I can’t believe my eyes, seeing trucks with brick or slabs of stone creeping along in order not to break anything, taking hours to get anywhere- certainly a challenge for business and commerce. I descended into a valley at one point and see a new road being built in the valley floor, with a tunnel. I scoff at it. For one, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is never completed, and am appalled that they aren’t fixing the roads they “have.” I was supposedly on a highway all day, but it is more accurate to say it was a series of short paved sections patched together with mud and gravel. If this nice section is finished, it will still benhard to get to! Anyhow, I come to the valley beyond this and see that the highway goes along the left side while another road skirts the right side and avoids the town, so I take it. It starts looking rough though, and I wonder if I will wind up in a bad neighborhood- this old road must have gone through a town, and the new highway must have killed the commerce of this other village, right? Wrong. I roll into town and the road is blocked to cars. It has been repaved with stones and is a beautiful, thriving pedestrian strip. A Beatles song blares out from a modern lounge. Colorful, interesting shops line the street and happy people are walking around in throngs. I cannot believe it, it is like an oasis! It is as if someone conjured a dream in the middle of a rundown area full of muddy streets. My eyes about popped out of my head, seriously. This town is called Bulkize. All of Eastern Albania has been beautiful, actually, except for the roads. Past the town of Bulkize, the country seems more affluent as well.

I am about ready to camp when the rain hits, and it doesn’t stop. There is nowhere to camp, and nowhere to stay that is reasonably priced, so I keep riding. The rain does not let up. Thunder ripples through the clouds and endless torrents flood the landscape. I ride on. There are, for once, no abandoned buildings around, and no camping. It is harder to camp here because of all the goatherds, cowherds, and shepherds: anywhere that is normally ideal is a thoroughfare for these grazers! At last I cave and stop at a big building with a gas station. I check the wi-fi and look for a hotel, but upon talking to the barrista here, I learn that I am standing in one! It is raining buckets and has been for hours, but I am sitting here nice and cozy in a very nice hotel room, with my own bathroom, a stylish bed, a tv, and a private balcony for the price of 20 euros. I will take it. Tomorrow Macedonia, another step closer to Turkey. What a crazy part of the world. People say a lot of things about Albania. I would say it is not for anyone soft or naive, but for a vagrant traveller like me, a little rough around the edges myself, it is no problem, and I would like to return someday.

Really, really bad rain. I rode in it for a couple hours before giving in.

Hotel room, Arnold, and friend of Arnold (Arnold and I had a long conversation via Google Translate)

Published by: bipedalgunnar

This is a blog about my trip across Europe and Asia. I am back in the States now, and turning this sequence of unedited, flurried and often poorly documented posts into a book, and hopefully a good one. That is proving to be a piece of work, but I am eager to do it. Now I'm back to work, trying to learn a thing or two about welding, get a career opportunity secured, and climb some rocks when I have a chance. Hope you enjoy it, but the book will be better *wink*.

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