June 29, 2003

moses and monty python



All credit to Moses. Nowadays Mount Sinai is a straightforward two-hour hike up a well-worn trail, but three millennia ago it must have been absolute murder.

I was expecting a mob of people and was amazed to find myself absolutely alone at the summit for sunset. Amazed and grateful. Standing atop a fantasyland of jagged, pitted, striated crags and canyons, eroded by the wind into twisted coiled dragon-shapes, stained by the last crimson rays of the sun, on the very mountain where Moses, so legend has it, received the Ten Commandments -- a magical moment.

I suppose I can't in good conscience leave you with the notion that I have become lone-wolf-in-the-wilderness Intrepid Man. I wasn't that alone. Not far below the summit are a half-dozen Bedouin huts/shops providing tea, Coke, chocolate, and mattress/blanket rental; two more overnighters showed up shortly after sunset; and just before dawn an Italian tour-group horde arrived. But still.

In the middle of the night, unless all three of us independently dreamed the very same thing, twenty or thirty monks assembled around the ancient chapel near the summit, and sang haunting Latin hymns for half an hour.

I found no burning bush up there. But at the foot of the mountain, in the seventeen-century-old Monastery of St. Catherine, grows what is alleged to be an offshoot of the very same bush that spoke to Moses. They claim that no other bush like it is found in all the Sinai peninsula, and that all the many attempts to cultivate cuttings from this bush in other places have failed. I remain a skeptic, as always, but it's a cool story.

And then, bringing me back to earth:

Like other impoverished tourist destinations, Egypt is populated by many, many touts and hangers-on who will attach themselves to you and try to wheedle baksheesh if either a) you look like a mark or b) you're excessively rude, in which case they may harass you just to piss you off.

Their usual chat-up lines are "Where you from?" or "Where you going?" My usual answer to the first is "What's it to ya?" and to the second "I seek the Holy Grail." ("I seek enlightenment" turned out to be too abstract, "yo' mamma's house" excessively adversarial.) Both usually confuse the tout long enough for a getaway. But today, in a crowded market in Sharm el-Sheikh from where I write, I gave some kid the usual answer, and kept walking, and then I distinctly heard somebody call out to me:

"Hey! My friend! What is the airspeed of a swallow in flight?"

My faith in the universe is newly restored.

June 18, 2003

burn the bridges

"dude, that town is fucked up."



Sarajevo is battle-scarred. Mostar is gutted.

There has been enough reconstruction that it isn't obvious at first. Stand on one of the hardly-used bridges, above the steep and beautiful ravine atop which the city perches, and it looks postcard-pretty. If you look closer you notice it's too pretty. All the buildings are new.

Go a block to the west and you step into a war zone. This is where the front line was. Rows of half-collapsed heaps of gray concrete and brick, torn open by ragged misshapen gaps like Godzilla took bites out of them, punched full of bullet holes, many of them roofless, covered with dust, full of rubble and trash. Chimneys and random jagged spurs that happened to survive the tank and shellfire jut out like broken bones.

Don't get me wrong. This is not a dead city. The streets are lined with parked cars, bright billboards are posted right in front of the wrecks, and every second or third lot boasts a brightly painted new EU-funded reconstructed building. The relatively-untouched areas, where the buildings are merely pockmarked with small-arms fire, are full of cafes where unemployed men sit listlessly in the heat. But it has been eleven years since the major fighting, eight years since the end of the war, and half the center of the city is still utter devastation. A twelve-story high trapezoidal building stands above the major intersection, blackened by fire, every window blown out.

I passed graveyards, choked with fresh flowers, jammed full of hundreds of graves, every single one of them end-dated 1992.

The west bank of the river is Croatian. The east side is Muslim. Kipling had it right; ne'er the twain shall meet. Not in Mostar. The bridges are not exactly worn thin from overuse.

On the bus back I sat next to a Bosnian-American girl who told me how the evil Croatians cheat her Muslim relatives there out of all the EU money, how war criminals walk the Croatian streets unmolested, how they sneak over to the Muslim side and steal and vandalize. I'm sure the same tales, with the names reversed, are told on the other side of the river. And then, not five minutes after complaining about anti-Muslim sentiment in Mostar, she's talking about the World Trade Center and how she now fears and mistrusts all "black people with beards" and they shouldn't let them into America. This from a UCSD law student.

It is to weep, or laugh hysterically.

June 12, 2003

Balkanization: II


The discreet charm of the Kosovarese

Parts of Kosovo are very pretty. It was exhilirating, even after an exhausting 11-hour bus ride through the Albanian outback, riding through watching dawn rise above its green misty rolling hills. Unfortunately the pretty parts do not include the towns. And definitely not the hotels. I checked into the Stalinist-concrete-block Hotel Iliria, whose terrifyingly pallid receptionist had obviously gone to Gulag charm school, and discovered that my room's "ensuite bathroom" was a cube of rotting concrete featuring a sink, a shower head, a towel ring, and a hole in the floor (to be fair the rest of the room was reasonable). And then I went down and ate breakfast with 200 Bangladeshi peacekeepers.

I guess NATO-UN territories tend to have more than their share of Luis Bunuel moments.

Kosovars love three things: cigarettes, ice cream, and the Internet. In a town of 150,000 there must be at least 100 establishments vending each of the latter two, and the streets are carpeted with cigarette butts. And all three are cheap and high-quality. Ah, capitalism. The cities are squalid arrays of grim concrete cubes, but even the poorest apartment block is forested with satellite dishes, and the countryside is green and beautiful.

Kosovo anecdote #2: Not all of life's luxuries are well-represented, but to my surprise there was a reasonably well-appointed gym. I went to work out. Not 20 minutes later, an enraged and monstrously huge US Marine emerged from the locker room growling with menacing incoherent fury. It turned out that somebody, he suspected a group of "Albanian thugs" he had seen earlier, had stolen his wedding ring and mission ring from his locker. He seemed much more concerned about the latter. "I am _not_ the guy to do this to," he said repeatedly, chuckling with mixed chagrin and malicious glee. As the Brit next to me drily observed: "I hope those Albanians are as good at running as they are at picking locks."

On the canonization of John Wesley Hardin

From Kosovo I went to the even uglier town of Peja and then spent a draining day crossing all of Montenegro in a chain of wheezing local buses, although this did include a ride through the magnificent Tara Canyon. When I finally arrived at the town of Kotor both spirits and expectations were low. To my surprise Kotor turned out to be a hidden treasure. At the head of the largest fjord in southern Europe, its old town delimited by thousand-year-old walls that snake steeply up the looming hills, thronging but in a good way with Serbian tourists, it was easily the nicest place I'd been since Athens.

For all of one day. Because the next day I bussed, taxiied, hitched, and boated to the city of Dubrovnik, built around a magnificent walled medieval city, on the shores of the crystal-clear island-laden Adriatic, a truly beautiful spot. It didn't feel quite as old as Kotor, but then in truth it isn't really; there's a map near the Pile Gate showing which parts of the city were shelled (for no military reason) by the Serbs in 1991 and then rebuilt, resculptured, repaired. Short version: "all of it". But these days you'd hardly know.

I stayed in the YHA hostel in Dubrovnik, and while it was a breath of fresh air seeing fellow-travellers again, I think I may be getting too old and crotchety to stay in hostels. One night I had occasion to stay up late musing on the subject of John Wesley Hardin and how he was a much misunderstood man. Sure, he was a violent, murderous, hair-trigger outlaw; but once, as I understand it, he shot a man dead for snoring too loudly. We could do worse than do follow his example.

From Dubrovnik up to Split, yet another city built around a walled medieval marble-streeted old town, this one boasting Diocletian's Palace, the massive retirement home of that Emperor of Rome. Nowadays the Palace is integrated into a thriving, busy city, instead of being walled off and left to stagnate as a museum; very cool.

One man not in a boat

Two days ago I hopped on a bus to the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Little did I know that this particular bus had assigned seating, and was overcrowded, and -- terror of terrors -- I had sat in the seat assigned to an elderly German woman. (Who did have a seat; it just wasn't _her_ seat, and that _wasn't proper_.) The horror, the horror. After my attempts to play Stupid-Tourist and then Scary-Lookin'-Big-Bald-Guy had wilted in the face of her righteous wrath, the bus conductor intervened, and the problem was righted by having approximately sixty per cent of the bus move from the seat they were in to the seat they were assigned (as none of the Croatians had bothered matchup the two either.) To be fair, the musical chairs did manage to eat up a fair chunk of the three-hour bus ride. Didn't do any good for the German reputation in this part of the world though. But in the end I made it to Plitvice Lakes, used my travel radar to sniff out the cheapest accomodations, and crashed out.

Plitvice Lakes is a very civilized national park, if you want it to be. There are buses that take tourists up and down the east half of the park, and small ferryboats that ply the largest lake. But I was having none of this. "Such conveyances are for the old!" I thought. "For the weak! For German tour groups! While I, I am an intrepid explorer!" So I bought a Snickers bar and a bottle of water and set out on shank's mare, briefly troubled by the nagging notion that perhaps I should arm myself with a better map than the microscopic one on my entrance ticket, but quickly dismissing that as defeatist whining and going boldly forth to the lakes.

Six hours, thirty kilometres, a half-dozen muttered oaths, four paths not on the ticket-map, three trails found only on the ticket-map, two wet blistered feet, one explosive discovery that I had purchased sparkling rather than still water, and approximately 3000 dead mosquitos later, I staggered back into my room and flopped down on the bed like a crash test dummy. But I didn't regret a minute. The lakes at Plitvice are, for my money, the most startling beautiful sight in all of Europe. A chain of shimmering, luminous turquoise lakes, surrounded by verdant forest, connected by 200 metres of waterfalls ranging from towering 100-foot cascades to burbling mossy staircases -- a peaceful, magnificent paradise.

Just got into Zagreb. Up next: Bosnia. Which, incidentally, will be a minor milestone: country #40 on my lifetime list. Not that I'm counting.

June 01, 2003

Balkanization: I


Ancient Roman ampitheatre in Durres, Albania.

Athens: an elaborate hoax?

Athens. Cradle of civilization, where 2500 years ago the ancient Greeks invented democracy, philosophy, and the Olympics. Or did they? I ask you: where's the proof?

Yeah, yeah, I know: "the proof's all around you! The Acropolis! The Parthenon! The Temple Of Zeus! The Olympic Stadium!" Uh-huh. I seen 'em. The Acropolis is a construction site, the Parthenon and Temple Of Zeus are covered in scaffolding, and the Olympic Stadium is flanked by a pair of enormous construction cranes. It really makes you wonder.

Athens itself is a nice place, a bit of a dive, but I like dives. The Greeks very sensibly herd the vast majority of tourists into a warren of shops and cafes just below the Acropolis. The entire rest of the city is under destruction for next year's Olympiad, and the streets are labyrinthine, but fortunately it's a good place to get lost in. I like the way that glitzy shopping areas and grimy suburbs alike can suddenly be interrupted by exquisite Orthodox churches that look like wedding cakes, or (allegedly) ancient ruins and pillars. And you can pick up fresh spanakopita on basically any street corner. Mmm.

Also it's cheap.

Best laid plans gone oft agley

From Athens I took the train north to Thessaloniki, and from there into Skopje, the capitol of the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia. Well, actually, no. Lesson learned: even if all previously available information states that Canadian passport holders may purchase a Macedonian visa at the border rather than in advance, the only opinion that really matters is that of the Macedonian border police. It might be for the best that I was bounced, as the way things were going, it looked like Dragosic, the wild Serbian man who co-inhabited my train compartment, was going to either challenge me to a duel to the death or offer me his daughter's hand in marriage before the ride was over.

The Greeks gave me a free ride back to Thessaloniki, where I spent a pleasant day exploring the cafe-laden city before hopping a bus to Albania, which has a truly fearsome reputation in Greece; all passengers had to go through a metal detector, and run their bags through an X-ray machine, before they were allowed onto the bus. I've passed through a fair few land borders before, and this was a first. (Ironically the only other destination for which I can envision it happening is the USA).

Then, as always seems to be the way with border crossings, we hit the border itself at 2 AM, and I had to do the hurry-up-and-wait border thing, sleep-deprived and shivering in the night, jostling for position in the cloud of people to get the Greeks and then the Albanians to stamp my passport. Amusingly, my sleep-dazed state saved me from a "personal surcharge" on the Albanian border guard's part:

ABG: "Entry tax, twenty euro."
Me : "Twenty euro?" (not sure if he'd said 'twenty' or 'thirty')
(A pause. ABG looks at me narrowly. I look back, eyes glazed with I guess what might have seemed to be skepticism.)
ABG: (reluctantly) "Ten euro."

Why does a dog wag its tail?

The bus deposited us in Korce, a town an hour from the border. Nicky, an eccentric British missionary I met on the bus, kindly put me up at her house in a nearby village. A nice and exceedingly hospitable person, but she had a disconcerting habit of ranting about the miserable, greedy, thieving Albanians. If her neighbours (who fed me coffee and chocolate in the morning) and all the other people I've met here are anything to go by then she couldn't be more wrong. "Happy, pleasant, friendly, generous, and welcoming" would be more like it.

In fact all of Albania seems to have been the victim of bad press. It's not near as backward and Third World as its reputation would indicate. The countryside is lovely, featuring red-brick rural villages set amid rippling green hills, olive groves and herds of goats, and Lake Ohrid, a vast, misty lake surrounded by rugged granite hills. Future European cottage country, mark my words. Buy your waterfront property now while it's cheap.

(Weird stranger-than-we-can-imagine aside: Lake Ohrid is home to the European eel, an extremely bizarre species that is born in the Sargasso Sea, swims across the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean, and up the River Drin to live in Lake Ohrid for 10 years, then swims back to the Sargasso Sea to mate, reproduce, and die. I couldn't make this stuff up.)

The landscape is admittedly made a little surreal by the 750,000 little domed concrete pillboxes that the paranoid Hoxha administration placed all over the country, particularly along roads and waterfronts, to protect Albania from the expected hordes of invading armies. Although when you consider events in Yugoslavia in the 90s this sadly seems more sensible than crazy.

Further evidence of Albanians being incredibly welcoming: like most developing nations, transport from town to town is handled by minibuses, here called furgons. The driver of the furgon that took me to Tirana bought me a coffee at a roadside cafe en route, drove me to the doorstep of my destination rather than the bus station without being asked...and refused a tip.

(We pause here so that those readers with experience of furgons / tro-tros / bemos / matatus / PMVs / whatchamathingummies in other places can recover from the shock, dust themselves off, and sit themselves back on their chair(s).)

It's also considerably less isolated than I expected. At said roadside cafe I wound up trading Cameroonian travel tales, in French (somewhat broken on my side), with a Greek-Albanian kid who had just spent two years living there. This isn't quite as weird as it may sound -- most Central African countries have significant Greek communities -- but is still pretty weird.

Tirana, the capitol, is a pleasant enough city to spend a day. Poor by European standards, sure, and in that stage of development where urban developers seem to get a bonus for making their cheap new buildings as ugly as possible, but at the same time fairly cosmopolitan, with a thriving cafe culture and even some interesting architecture in an avant-garde-Stalinist-igloo kind of way. And despite Albania being theoretically an Islamic country the women have adopted the Greek fashion of Skimpy And A Size Too Small. After a brief internal struggle I managed to overcome my natural disapproval.

I'm now in Durres, a nearby city on the Adriatic where cheap tourist hotels have been sprouting like pimples along the waterfront to handle Italian tourists who come here on direct ferries from Bari and Trieste. Unfortunately the waterfront and beach are under ugly reconstruction, but there are remnants -- a wall, a big amphitheatre, pillars and baths -- of the city the Romans built here back in the day, and once you get out of the city proper, the coastline is beautiful. It's also a useful setting for my planned refugee-smuggling book. And it was fun watching Real Madrid on TV while sitting atop an ancient Roman guard tower that has now been repurposed as a bar.

Next up: another couple of days on the Albanian coast, a refilling of moneybags (the banking system is here is kinda primitive, but I should be able to get a credit-card advance in leke, the local currency, and then convert that to euros on the street) and then off to the UN protectorate of Kosovo. Thence to "the pearl of the Mediterranean", Dubrovnik, in Croatia. I'll keep y'all posted.