Friday, October 27, 2006

To Dubrovnik And Out

I was standing at sea level and the old town of Dubrovnik was also standing at sea level, but about a mile and a half away. Why not walk over there? The map showed a spaghetti of streets joining and separating from each other, but it looked pretty straitforward.

Except that the street I was on started to go uphill. So I switched to a parallel one. Which also started going uphill. So I switched to a third... By the end of it all I was about 500 feet above sea level and looking down at the tallest tower of the highest old city wall.

So I worked my way down to approximately sea level and entered through the main gate. For once the layout of the old town was not cutesty random alleyways but rather one main 'street' with many smaller lanes going off at exact right angles. The architecture was kind of Venetian provincial, but not terribly dramatic. So it was clear that it was the much bigger and better than Disneyland walls themselves that were the big draw.

And, finally, at the end of the journey, I was in the middle of tourist bedlam, albeit a tourist bedlam on Monday in the off season. For here were all the people from the Carnival Cruise Line and all those other bohemoth ships waiting offshore. It wasn't quite surreal, it being the off season, but it was getting there. And I didn't quite know what to think of all these fat pasty tourists: On the one hand they were getting out and seeing some of the world, on the other hand, the very mass tourist enterprise that they were part of was preventing them from experiencing what the rest of the world was really like.

And it was clear that at least some of the Dubrovnikiaks who were serving them had developed certain attitude problems. Which meant that they didn't really get to see what most former Yugoslavians behaved like in the real world.

And when I found my way back to my room, I discovered that the nice lady I had met at the bus station was now trying to charge be $10 to take me back there in the morning. I got a little heated and told her that hadn't been the deal. So then she whimpered and asked for $5, etc., etc. Finally I told her I wasn't paying her for the room until I was physically back at the bus station. Since I was now going to sleep in their house, that made for a slight bit of discomfort.

But not really for me, because, first, I was just too tired at this point, and, second, I had to pack for tomorrow. Which I did.

The next morning she whimpered again, but I held firm, and soon I was deposited at the depot and her husband had the 20 Euro in his hand. I now checked my baggage until the afternoon, walked over to the bus stop, and took the easy way back to the old city.

Many more cruise tourists and others. I paid the $10 to get up on the wall, and then did a leisurely two mile stroll along the ramparts, looking out to the turquoise sea, down at the red-tiled rooftops, up at the slate grey and green mountains. Once again, it was hard to compete with the setting.

Then a few more hours wasting time down with the tourists, then the city bus back to the intercity depot, from whence departed the bus for the airport.

My clever idea for the return flight was to get a relatively cheap airfare to Dublin, and then a $400 one way ticket to Albuquerque from there, saving over $120 from the airport fees that London would have charged. Yes, I would get in at around 11 pm and have to wait around until 9 the next morning, but I figured that I could just stretch out and catch a little shuteye in the deserted departure area.

As the plane was about 10 minutes over the Adriatic Sea it suddenly occured to me that there was no way that the Delta ticket counter would be open at 11 pm, and that therefore there was no way I was going to be able to get into the departure area. Not only that, but, wow, do they squash a lot of people into a little space on those cheap European airlines. And if you want a cup of water it's 2 Euro.

So we landed in Dublin, my fears were confirmed, and I found myself at 11 pm calling all the hotels listed on their Phone A Hotel board. The best deal I could find was the Holiday Inn Express for $120. Either that or sit upright with all the other losers in the arrival hall all night.

They said they had a courtesy shuttle, so I went looking for the pickup point. Apparently it was out the back, off to the right a football field or so, and then out in the middle of a dark parking lot. And, oh yeah, it was in the forties, there was drenching rain, and a bitter wind, and I was dressed for Dubrovnik.

There was one other unfortunate traveler standing in the rain waiting, and off in the downpour we could see that a courtesy van was right ahead. It obviously saw us, and then took off. We just stood there getting soaked not believing it.

Then a couple of minutes later it came back. Apparently it had just picked up a Lufthansa flight crew, and regulations said... But then the Lufthansa captain, in his generous Teutonic spirit, allowed the driver to go back and pick us up.

I got to the super modern hotel, gritted my teeth while I paid them the money, and went up to my luxurious room. In which I immediately conked out and awoke 7 hours later.

Now back to the airport. Where the flight was over an hour late. Then on to the plane, where I had the minor surprise of being put in a Business Class seat. There was the annoying little point of pointlessly stopping in Shannon for over two hours, but the rest of the seven hour flight was enjoyably passed.

But by the time we got to New York we were two hours behind schedule. Which should have been all right, since I had a three hour layover. But then it took Delta over forty minutes to unload the baggage, which we then had to wheel through Customs and give back to Delta for forwarding.

And my cheap ticket actually went forward on Continental. Which was in another terminal. And JFK is a dirty, grimy, chaotic mess. So I now had to find my way, in the rain, out of Terminal 3 and over to Terminal 4, which was neither easy nor straightforward.

Okay. I got to Terminal 4. And there in the midst of hundreds of airline ticket booths was one lonely Continental one. You see, Continental only has 5 flights a day out of JFK. And mine to Houston was the last one. I ran up and asked the smarmy guy at the desk what gate my flight left from.

He answered smarmily that the flight was already closed. I said, there's still 27 minutes. He said it closed 30 minutes before, and anyway it wasn't HIS fault that Delta was incompetent. I stood there partially fuming and partially trying to figure out a way around this. Then another lady from a Dubai flight came up, with baggage, with the same problem. He was giving her the same line when I said, Aha!, My baggage is already checked. And, See, I already have a boarding card.

So he lazily dials his superior and gets permission for me, and then smarmily says, Well, you have 18 minutes, and it's a long way, so I don't think you'll make it.

Not make it? I had no choice. Not only didn't I want to spend $200 on a New York hotel, only to have to endlessly hassle new flights tomorrow, but I was tired and I wanted to go home. I started running.

Across the giant terminal to the escalator. Then along the ridiculous length of the terminal, at least three city blocks. Running, running, running. Oh, and now the security check.

Not too many people in line. I rushed to unload about five pockets full of crap and untie my shoes. I piled it all into one tray, stuck the tray in front of everyone else's, and walked through the detector hoping against hope that no one would notice my suspicious behavior. Then I feverishly tried to simultaneously stuff things in my pockets and put my shoes back on.

Now more running. Of course the plane was at the last gate, and now there were at least three more city blocks to run. Part of me was looking down at it all, and noting how ridiculous it was for me to have to be doing this. But I HAD to.

I got there 6 minutes ahead of departure time. Nonetheless they closed the door behind me and immediately started taxiing. And then sat there for 30 minutes waiting for clearance.

I kind of collapsed in the seat, even though I wasn't terribly out of breath. The relevant point to me was that, although one can overtax the system when one is 25, and the system recovers, at some point I'm going to do something stupid like this and keel over.

Of course, even though it was 4 pm in New York, I was still living at 11 pm Croatian time. And by the time I had gotten to Houston and waited around for a couple of hours I wasn't any better rested. So by the time I finally got on the Albuquerque flight I was pretty much a zombie.

Which was too bad, because it looked like an interesting couple were sitting next to me. No matter. I conked out.

So I'm in the rest room at the ABQ airport, and the guy who had been sitting next to me said, Boy, you were really conked out. And we talk a little. And I ask him where in ABQ he lives, and he says, he's just here for the conference. And I say, What conference? And he says, the biology teachers conference.

So The next morning at 9 am I'm on the phone to the exhibits person for the NABT, and I arrange to buy a discounted booth, and then we're feverishly loading t-shirts into boxes and driving into town, and by 4 pm we're in back in business.

And my round the world escap(e)ade is in the rear view mirror.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

To Bosnia And Back

Friday dawned with a significant amount of blue sky, and I was able to appreciate the Old Town of Kotor even more. The point of today was to veg out as much as possible, so I attacked the problem with maximum zeal, lying in bed as much as possible. In the afternoon I climbed the wall, so to speak, walking up the battlements to a couple of hundred feet above the town and spending about an hour sitting and looking out over the medieval buildings, the newer town, and the mountains and the fjord and its occasional sailboat, all underneath a blue and partially cloudy sky.

Saturday I had to get up at 6 am for the 7:15 bus to Dubrovnik, a couple of hours away. At least from the road coming in over the hill, the Old Town looked cute. Maybe too cute.

I had planned to rent a car in Croatia, too, but once again 1) the forecast was for rain, 2) I was still pretty tired, and 3) the agency that the LP said was right next to the bus station wasn't.

Saturday was supposed to be partly sunny, though, so I decided to take a bus up the Croatian coast to the city of Split. We started out at 11.

I am pleased to report that the Croatian coast lives up to its billing. Maybe even more so. Huge grey mountains covered for the most part by lush evergreens. Blue seas verging on turquoise. Big islands offshore that are basically sunken mountains. Red tiled houses and picturesque churches and achingly blue skies. All this with a San Diego climate, even including the orange groves. Not only that, but it's still a small two lane road hugging the shore and limited development.

There's still time to sail your yacht over and have some fun.

Split itself was big and not too scenic. Its main attraction are some Roman ruins, which are the least impressive Roman ruins in existence: literally one excavated basement. The Old Town was totally uninspiring. Nonetheless that didn't stop cruise lines from disgorging hundreds and hundreds of tourists.

But for me, even Odessa had been niftier. Even several hours later, after an uninspiring sunset, Split was totally blah. So I had a banana sundae, and in the morning I, er, left the scene.

The bus for Sarajevo proved to be an all day affair. For the first part we retraced our path down the coast. This morning though, while still clear, was incredibly windy. And now we were on the cliff side of the narrow road, with the cliffs at some points going 1000 feet straight down. With a very tall bus. Oh well, they must do this all the time.

We headed inland towards the city of Mostar, the environs still looking mostly coastlike. From there, though, we headed up another (though gentler) Montenegro type gorge with dark, dark mountains cloaked in dark green.

We finally entered Sarajevo around 4:30. It's a city of over 600,000, so it was a lot bigger than I had imagined from old war reports, with many Yugoslav housing blocks, which were always slightly more colorful and aesthetic than eastern bloc ones were.

Sarajevo surprised me by also having a really colorful and different Old Town. Like the Albanians, the Bosniaks had infuriated their fellow Caucasians by embracing not only Islam but the Turkish way of life, and Sarajevo's little center was more Turkish looking than anything I've seen in Turkey. Surprisingly pleasant.

Unfortunately for me, the ONLY bus to Dubrovnik left at 7:15 in the morning, so I had little time to enjoy Sarajevo. I started walking.

As for the WAR: Yes, I had been noting all the many buildings from Mostar on that still had bulletholes all over them, and, yes, I had passed the Holiday Inn where all the journalists had stayed, but, once again I was in a previous war zone that has a feeling of pure normality.

Well, I did have one idea, and that was to get over to the Serbian side of the city. The sun was now down when I found the city bus that was supposed to go there. I hopped on board, and then sat for the next 40 minutes convinced I had gotten on the wrong bus. But at the end of the line, the driver said that Srbska was just 300 meters more. So I walked along in the dark, a wind rising.

When I got to the 'border' there were no signs. But an old Serbian guy nodded and drew an imaginary line with his foot when I got there. 20 meters further was a Serbian city bus stop and a Serbian long distance bus station for the Serbian half of Bosnia. But no formal boundary or anything. It's a totally normal looking street. It's just that one side begins and another side ends.

Then back to the center, back to my room, and up at 6:00 for the bus to Dubrovnik.

We got in at around 2 pm and, like for the previous two days, chose among the women standing around with little signs for a room for the night. Once settled in, I decided to walk into town.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Greetings From Crna Gora

That's Montenegro to you. As of 3 months ago, the world's newest sovereign nation. Serbia is getting mighty lonely right about now.

My nice Albanian friend had spent a lot of time last night trying to find out if there were any buses or minibuses over the mountains from Pej to Rozije in the morning. Nope. All you could do is hire a taxi for 20 euro.

Okay. So I was prepared this morning, and found a nice cab driver to drive me there. It's a relatively high pass, and it looked a lot like Colorado as we got to the summit and the Montenegrin border. And there, waiting to clear immigration, was a bus.

A bus??? Yes, said my driver, there's one that leaves Pej every morning at 8 am. I was a little crushed. For an hour and a half taxi ride it was a pretty cheap deal, but: They had lied to my Albanian friend and me!

Oh well. I tried to enjoy the scenery on the way down. When we got to Rozije the town was ever so slightly alpine. And a bus was headed for Pedorica at 10:30.

So we were heading down what is essentially a 120 mile long dark, dark gorge with (finally) really intense mountains all around. Except that the clouds and rain kind of hampered the fun. And at around 1:30, on curve number 387, there was a SMASH, and the sickening sound and feel of our metal being scrunched and the bus lurching.

It wasn't really the kind of SMASH to send us careening off of a precipice, but enough of a sideswipe Smash to take out our side panels and to spin a medium sized truck to where he was now blocking the road.

Neither of us could now move until the police arrived. Which seemed like forever, but was really only an hour. Then another bus also arrived, and we all transferred over to it, and continued down the mountain.

At Podorica the mountains finally opened up onto a small plains. I got on another bus, this time to Kotor, and we started over even more mountains, this time, lighter limestone ones. After an hour or so we came out at about 1500 feet over the Adriatic, and everything was spread out below us as only southern Europe can do. Even in the rain it was pretty dramatic.

A half an hour later we made it to the town of Kotor, sitting at the foot of tall mountains at the head of an honest to goodness fjord. Once again, even the rain couldn't totally spoil it.

So I walked in the rain for about 500 meters to Kotor's Old Town. Now I was in a cobblestoned medieval alley kind of place that was as cool as anywhere else in Europe.

I liked it so much that I even popped for a $43 room.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Dateline Kosovo

With it's cute little cobblestone alleyways winding towards my room right on the lake, Ohrid was the kind of place where I really wouldn't have minded sitting around for a couple of days doing nothing.

But even though I was now a day ahead of myself on my schedule, there was still this blank space on my map between Kosovo and Montenegro, so I thought I should give myself room for screwing up.

Therefore, after a morning sitting by the lake, I took a taxi over to the bus station for the 11 o'clock back to Skopje. The hills we went through in the dark on Monday were nice, but not as dramatic in the sunlight. And every single eastern European capital has totally congested traffic, so it was 2:30 when we got to Skopje's station. On the other hand, there was a fortuitous 3:00 bus for Pristina, the Visa ATM was now working, and the money changing guy was smiling.

There are a few scenic hills between Skopje and the Kosovo border, which was manned by the UN. (Although a bunch of UN station wagons and a jeepful of KFOR soldiers standing around would be all the multinational presence that I would see.)

The hills flattened out within about 10 miles, and the rest of the way it was mostly flat, with low hills on the horizon. It was also mostly the opposite of scenic, with inordinate amounts of dirt and auto junkyards, and a 'motel' about every kilometer. By the time we got to the capital, Pristina, at rush hour, there was about as much of a big ugly mess as you could get out of a city of 150,000.

Fortunately there was a bus heading for Pej in ten minutes. And then away we did go, ending up here at the far end of Kosovo at around seven.

Zoning issues aside, all the Albanians I've met are really, really nice people. And they really, really like Americans. When I got off the bus in the dark at Pej, an Albanian who spoke English immediately took me under his wing, and spent 20 minutes asking around about how I would get out of there tomorrow morning. Then he took me to his car and drove me about a quarter of a mile, where he then took the time to negotiate a room for me at a one and a half star hotel.

Anyhow, I could tell in the gloaming that the mountains here ARE finally serious ones. Other than that, though, I'm afraid Kosovo, while eminently peaceful, so far isn't the greatest of tourist destinations.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Macedonia? Wasn't She Kingfisher's Wife?

Plovdiv was a really nice place. If I had to stay there for a week I probably wouldn't have minded. But last night I had already walked to everywhere there was to walk.

And having now seen both Plovdiv and VT, there weren't any other Bulgarian cities worth seeing. Sure, there were still lots of Bulgarian mountains and villages, but without a car they were somewhat problematical.

Which made me reach the strange but logical conclusion that it was time to leave one of the main countries I had wanted to see. Which put me on the 9 o'clock bus to Sofia. Which put me on the 1 o'clock bus to Macedonia.

We wound our way through the various subhills of another of Bulgaria's mountain ranges, and I found myself sitting behind a certain sixtyish lady named Patricia. She had emigrated to Canada from Australia in the Sixties, and now lived off of a certain fixed income. She warbled about how she had been to 'at least 300' countries, and so we sat there and traded travel stories.

We crossed the Macedonian border about 4 o'clock, and at that point she let me know that she was shortly going to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere, from where she was going to walk up a long hill where there might or might not be an old monastery with one nun. I was reminded of another Canadian immigrant named Patricia that I had known, and how she too had such utter confidence in her foolhardiness. So I just smiled and said, 'You know that you're insane, don't you?' and let it go at that.

She went up to the driver and showed him a note in Bulgarian that someone had written for her. He then tried to explain to her in Bulgarian that she was insane, but then just shrugged and pulled the bus over to let her out. So there she was, in the middle of frigging nowhere, pulling her luggage up a hill that went up and up, not having a dinar of Macedonian money or knowing a single word in Macedonian, as the sun was going down and the clear sky promised a cold night.

Well, me and the bus were still rolling towards Skopje. I was finally out of the Eastern Bloc, even if it was the former Yugoslavia, and soon we hit the Athens freeway. At seven we finally pulled into Skopje.

Except that now it was six since we had gained an hour. Which was critical to my own foolhardy idea, which was, since I knew that Skopje was eminently missable, to try and continue on tonight towards Macedonia's principal tourist attraction, Ohrid.

For once the LP's mistake went to my benefit, and instead of having to find a second 'Ohrid' bus station, it turned out that the buses went from this one. Even better news was that there was one leaving at 6:30.

The bad news was that the ATM didn't take Visa, and the 'money change' guy gave me a scowl and said he was closed for the day. Some desperate running around then took place, with someone over there finally relenting and changing a twenty for me. Ticket bought, I then lucked out again because the one food stall in the place agreed to make me a couple of cheese sandwiches.

Stuffing my mouth with one hand and stuffing my bag under the bus with the other, I was now ready for the night bus to Ohrid. As we drove along under a bright moon I saw that finally I seemed to be hitting some serious mountains. Indeed, from here on out the population would be mostly Albanian.

Getting into Ohrid at around 10 I found a taxi driver who finally said he knew where 'Lujia's Hotel' was. When he deposited me in front of a plain square building I was puzzled. Then he showed me a small unlit sign and I rang the bell. Sure enough, Lucija opened the door, and for once the LP had come through. The room she had was big, clean, and had a bathroom with really nice tiles and a classy glass shower stall. Bye, bye, Commieland.

She was middle-aged, and she and an older friend went about plumping up the room for me. I was surprised by her warm human warmth. Surprised because they don't do warmth in China and they definitely don't do it in Russia.

The next morning I set out to discover Ohrid. Now back in 1978, when I was hitchhiking through Yugoslavia, I got a ride with a couple of Albanians who went on and on about all the medieval churches in Ohrid. And ever since then I had dreamed of seeing all those ancient frescoes in that little town lost in the mists of time on that mysterious lake hard up by the forbidden country of Albania.

Well, not exactly. It turns out that Ohrid is actually a small city, a rather busy summer resort, and a place where the pizza parlors literally outnumber the medieval churches 15 to 1.

On the other hand, once my mind had adjusted to the real reality, taken on its own merits as a resort town I found Ohrid and its setting to be really quite nice. Especially on a sunny day in the off season. I poked around all the restaurants and villas and with some difficulty found the churches, which turned out to be very small and mostly closed. But Lake Ohrid is quite blue and clear and splendid, and it is surrounded by mountains in a setting a little reminiscent of Lake Tahoe.

Although instead of Nevada over there, it's Albania.

So I spent the day doing not much. In the afternoon I took the local bus about 20 miles all the way down the lake to the Albanian border. And then rode it back.

And then I had a Greek salad and pasta in the back patio of one of those pizza places. Twenty yards away from me stood the ancient stonework of the back of one of those tiny medieval churches.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Travel Angel Takes Vacation

How many times has this happened to you? Not wanting to almost miss the train again, I checked both the nice lady's printout AND the Sigisoara station board, and they both said 9:20. So I set the alarm, got ready in plenty of time, and headed out into the foggy morning for the fifteen minute walk to the station. I got there in plenty of time and then sat and waited for the train.

At 9:30 I found out that the train actually came at 10:20. So I sat there shivering in the Transylvanian fog, awaiting my carriage.

That meant that I didn't get back to Bucharest until 2:30. Which made a difference, since I had to check my e-mail. You see, the day before I went to reconfirm the car rental I had arranged for Bulgaria. And the e-mails kept being sent back, saying 'no such address'. So then I had to feverishly research more rental companies, the trouble being that my first one was for 19 euro a day, while 'name' companies wanted 60 euro a day. I had finally found one at 34 euro a day, but they had made some mistakes in the rental agreement they had sent back. So I had returned that for correction.

Now I was at the Bucharest train station, which meant that I had to go downtown, which meant that I walked over to take the subway. But it turned out that the subway network is totally nuts, the station maps were totally indecipherable, and many of the stations didn't even have signs in them. After going all the way around the city, I finally found a map that made sense, and that showed me that if I had just turned right at the beginning...

Anyway, now I was out on the street looking for an internet cafe, which The Book had said would be on every block. Twenty minutes later I asked a nice young man who wore huge glasses because he had been born with cataracts for directions, and he very nicely pulled out his Romanian Blackberry and tried for 20 minutes to try and access my e-mail. Finally he pointed me all the way back the way I had come.

When I finally got on line at 4:45 there were no messages from anyone.

So I walked around Bucharest for a couple of hours. How depressing. Maybe it was the 'Paris of the East' seventy years ago, but none of the buildings have been cleaned since then. Indeed, the whole country is a dump and the people are all in the dumps. I mean, I feel sorry for the little guys (and they are quite small), because they're really nice, but they all seem only too aware that they're living in a Blade Runner world.

I ended my tour by walking over to the gigantic Palace of the People, Bucharest's premier sight and dictator Cousecou's last big project. I'm all for megalomania, but this is just one big ugly building.

Anyway, it was back to the train station and my 11th night sleeping on a train.

We got into Sofia at 6:30 and, guess what, nobody was there. Any other day I could have gone around and found another deal, but this was Sunday morning. The big dream I had always had of driving around Bulgaria had become a cropper. Totally dejected, I checked my big bag and walked across the street to the bus station.

There was a bus leaving for Veliko Tarnovo in ten minutes, so I bought a ticket and got on. As we started off towards the east I tried to console myself. After all, the morning sun was rising like a red rubber ball.

But it was still kind of annoying as we hit the Bulgarian countryside, since finally here was some really beautiful scenery and totally driveable roads. It was all mountainous and pastoral, with little side roads going off into the unknown.

Okay, back to reality. We arrived in VT at eleven, and I ate something and then walked into the old town area. I had already fallen in love with all things Bulgaria, but, unfortunately, VT didn't remotely live up to its billing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just rather boring buildings overlooking a half decent 'gorge'.

On the other hand, the medieval 'Fortress' at the edge of town, was pretty neat. Mostly a few old walls, the rest is a really pleasant parklike area with wide views of limestone hills on the horizon.

But that was about it for VT. I decided to move on.

The taxi dropped me off at the far bus station as the lone bus for Plovdiv was about ready to take off. So at least there would be little down time; we headed off over eastern US type 'mountains'.

I got into Plovdiv as the sun was setting, immediately found a hotel, and then set off to walk the city. I found their version of an 'Arbat', and I was immediately struck with how much less depressing it was than Romania. The people in Bulgaria, too, were... well, human. After gloomy Romania and Russia, where nobody shows ANY expression, let alone smiling, having people walk down the street showing a normal range of human emotions made me remember what a real world looked like.

And at the far end of their Arbat I turned right and headed up a steep heel to their Old Town. It was by no means ancient, but here was finally an Old Town that could hold its own in quaintness with the best of Western Europe. As I finally reached the top of the hill in the last light of day, and looked down on a moonlit 'uptown' Plovdiv, it was actually a magical moment.