Saturday, September 25, 2010

Denying Others' Rights

ISTANBUL, TURKEY As I was touring the underground Cistern, I met a man from San Diego, who told me, "I never give out where I'm from. I travel all over the world and I know how much we're hated. They confuse our govenment with us." This has not been my experience and, although my influence is zero, I would never deny, that I am not the government. Everywhere I have gone, people engage me in heartfelt discussions. Without rancor, they have strongly disagreed with our foreign policies. Some believe that Americans hate them and their religion. "No," I say, "In America everyone is free to practice their own religion. It's a freedom guaranteed under our Bill of Rights." That's where I lose them and I know also that I'm on shaky ground, as many in America would deny others their rights: women's right to choose, gays' right to marry, Muslims' right to build mosques, and children's right to be educated and not indoctrinated. They call us imperialists, and in someways it's true, but I point out, even here in Turkey, our greatest export, albeit poorly adopted, has been our constitution. They're clear on the concept of a democracy; the right to vote and choose. But a constitution, with a clear separation of powers, and the explicit and undeniable rights of the individual, is missing. Here, the call to prayer is at 5:45 in the morning. In Poland, the church bells ring on the hour and each half. How much carnage has been wrought to ensure that the cacophony continues? No matter who wins this battle of noises, the loser is going to be the poor guy who wants to get a good night's sleep. I wish I could say, "In America we all have a right to get a good night's sleep and that's something for which Americans are definitely willing to fight."

Friday, September 24, 2010

Tell Us the Truth

Turkish English Class
ISTANBUL, TURKEY Where has Turkey and the hundreds of acts of kindness gone? It's Istanbul! "Guide book- good price - please, make an offer. I like you, you American." "You need guide - I show you Blue Mosque -make you a very good deal." "I have carpet - hand made - you want?" Nationalities of every kind; Europeans, Arabs, Asians, Americans - a cacophony of languages, but predominately English; the crossroads of civilizations: East - West, Europe - Asia, Christian - Muslim, Rich - Poor, Past - Future. The city is buried in roving anthropologists, carefully reading their guide books, patiently standing in long lines, scrutinizing the inscriptions on the mosques; inundated in anecdotes, facts and figures, large and small. Out of the bazillion pieces of infomation is there anything to impress the folks back in Kansas? In the Topkapi Palace, one of the museums has a collection of sacred artifacts collected by the Prophet Mohammad: Moses' staff, King David's sword, and Joseph's turban. As the line approaches the staff of Moses, a German couple giggles, "Unglaublich!" Two young Arab men follow, scrutinizing the staff in great detail, demonstrating to each other that given the size of the staff, Moses must have been quite small. They reluctantly move on having been enriched and moved by this sacred artifact. My own thought was that Cecil B. DeMille had miscasted Charleton Heston in that role. Outside the Palace I meet a group of high school students. They're studying English and want to ask me some questions. I respond, "Do you want me to tell you what you want to hear or the truth?" "Tell us the truth, tell us the truth," They shouted. The worst I could come up with was, "Your transportation isn't very good." They laughed, agreeing, "But what do you think of our food - the kebab?" "Excellent!" I said. "The people? What do you think of us?" Their smiling open heartedness spoke for itself.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Take the Ferry

Venard is on the Left
BURSA, ISTANBUL Ever since I arrived in Bursa I had been trying to figure out how to get to Istandbul. Except for a spattering of words and phrases, no one speaks English. I was told to take the bus - it takes five hours but another hour to get to the station. Another said, "Take the ferry - only 1 1/2 hours," wrote down the name and location, but couldn't tell me how to get there. Near the hotel, I asked the attendant at the Metro Station, "How to get to the ferry?" "Take train number 1 to Mudanyan - it's near the sea - only twenty minutes - then the bus." "That's it," I thought. The next morning I went to the Metro Station and twenty minutes later arrived at my destination. Busses were lined up across from my stop. "This will be easy." I showed the first bus driver the slip with the name and location of the ferry. He shook his head and waved his arm in another direction. Seeing that I was confused, another bus driver came over - he couldn't speak English either. Soon there were half dozen drivers standing around, giving me advice - all in Turkish. I gave up trying to understand them and headed in the direction they were pointing. About two blocks away was a city bus stop. I decided to check with a small nearby pharmacy. The manager understood English, but was unclear as to how I to get to the ferry. He had five young ladies working for him, all started offering advice, in Turkish. They argued and debated and finally resolved that I should take bus 97 to the terminal and then another bus to the ferry. The manager wrote out the instructions in Turkish and said, "You need to go back to the first bus stop to get a ticket." There, the same group of drivers gathered around me; each reading the note the pharmacy manager had written, vigorously debating its merits. "I need a ticket," I kept saying. One of the drivers finally got it and pulled out of his wallet a well worn ticket. I looked at him in disbelief, but what could I do. I returned to the bus stop in front of the pharmacy not sure I had a valid ticket. A young boy saw me puzzling over the ticket, reached out his hand, looked at it, and gave me a thumbs up. I showed him my note and he nodded and pointed to himself indicating he was taking the same bus 97. He only spoke a few words of English but enough for me to learn his name was Venard, he was in the 10th grade, and played Soccer. Two women dressed in hijabs had been listening to our conversation and told Venard that they were going to the ferry and that I should follow them. As we waited for the bus, half an hour or so, I had time to get to know Venard, his two friends, and a variety of other characters, all of whom, had to read the note and offered advice as to its merits.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The bus finally came but seemed to take us back through the same area I had come by train. About a half hour into the ride, Venard, who up until then had been attentive to my needs, had to get off. The two women in hijabs motioned to me from further up in the bus that they would help me. A young, smartly dressed, woman, without a head scarf, noticed, and in the best English I had heard so far in Turkey, said, "Can I help you?" She was a journalist for the Bursa newspaper and had studied in England. I thanked her for her help and asked her what she thought of the recent constitutional referendum. Puzzled at first that I should take an interest, said, "Bad, I voted no." "Why?" I asked, remembering that Eyup had actively campaigned for it and saw it as necessary for becoming more fully integrated with the European Union. "Too much power is given the President. We will lose our civil liberities." I wished we could have talked more - she had to get off the bus and two stops later we arrived at the bus station. The two women in hijabs motioned to me to follow them into the terminal where they assisted me in buying a ticket on another bus that would now take me to the ferry. It turned out to be an hour long ride during which, for the first time in Turkey, I traveled alone and in silence thinking I probably had gone completely out of the way but couldn't have met more friendly people. As I finish writing this, I'm in Istanbul. You can take all the places I've been to, group them together, and you still would not have the city of cities - Istanbul.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hope to Learn Arabic

Eyup and Wife in Mosque
BURSA, TURKEY Bursa is a city of 2.5 million and so you don't expect someone to be calling your name. It was Eyup and his wife. Our paths just happened to cross as we both headed in the direction of the old town, where there's a large bazaar and several old mosques. I politely passed on entering the first mosque, at Eyup's invitation, hoping to avoid any further discussion of religion, but later I ran into them again - this time at the Yesil Mosque and decided to join them. Upon entering the Mosque the two went through the customary prayers before marveling at the beautiful caligraphic Arabic writings on the walls. "Eyup, what do these mean?" I asked. "I don't know." I found his response remarkable. He was a devout Muslim and here, perhaps, were its most profound teachings upon which the faithful could meditate, but no one could understand them. Was the sing-song call to prayer blasted from the minaret speakers, shattering one's early morning slumbers, also unintelligible - just a part of the routine, like tea and cigarettes, bland clothing, head scarfs, hijabs, and dreary rain coats? Over tea, Eyup explained, "I hope to learn Arabic when I retire. I read the Koran now in Turkish." "Why Islam?" I asked. "Because it's true." "Were your parents Muslim?" I asked. "Yes." "And your grandparents?" "Yes." "Can you really say you chose Islam then?" His answer, as one might expect, was quite involved. I wouldn't be able to do it justice here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

OBL Is a CIA Agent

Abdullah before Mosque
CANAKKALI, TURKEY On the bus from Gelilolu to Ecsebat, I met Abdullah, friendly, bright, and well read; a dovout Muslim; a Turkish soldier on leave to visit his wife. With hand language and very broken English, Abdulllah eagerly talked about his faith and the many grievances he and his fellow Turks had against Jews, Americans, and the West in general. His passions ran deep accusing Jews and Americans of killing millions, "kill babies" was an expression he used. "Osama Bin Laden is a CIA agent," he claimed. Earlier on in this trip, on the train between Graz and Ljubjana, I had met an Israeli soldier who had expressed, with similar passion, his grivances against Palastinians and Muslims. Both so young, not much older than Josh, caring and generous to a fault, but willing to kill in defense of their religious views. We debated the role of religion across political conflicts as we took the ferry across the Canakkali Straights into Asia and to the seaside town of Canakkali. There I had planned to catch the 12:30 bus to Bursa, but engaged, as we were, I changed to the 2:30 bus. We ate lunch, debated; browsed a couple of book stores, debated; and visited an outdoor military museum, and debated some more. "Read the Koran," Abdullah insisted, and gave me a list of other books to read as well. Although his views were disturbing, but emblematic, I surmised, of most people in this part of the world, I tried to understand his position as well as I could. The call to prayer sounded, and Abdullah said, "I need to go to the Mosque. You come with." Soon I found myself in the midst of the faithful. Abdullah and I washed our hands, feet, face, and head; removed our shoes; and filed into the Mosque, while the women, with their hands held out in a form of supplication, sat on a bench outside. Inside, Abdullah found a place where I could sit and observe while he joined the other men listening to the recorded chanted prayers - falling repeatedly to their knees, their faces to the floor. Outside we each received a lemon sweet dipped in sugar powder. I made it to my bus just in time. We promised to exchange emails.

Eyup and Wife
I had just left Abdullah and was boarding the bus when a Turkish couple, the man speaking German and assuming I needed help, checked my ticket to make sure I was on the right bus and my bags safely aboard. The man, whose name was Eyup, had lived in Berlin for sixteen years. The ride to Bursa took five hours - we had plenty of time to get to know each other. His thoughts were the same as Abdullah, "The CIA had fabricated Osama Bin Laden. 9/11 was a CIA operation. Because communism had been defeated, the capitalists needed an enemy to fight, and that enemy was now Islam." He went into a lengthy explanation as to why this was true. I asked him if this was an opinion shared by most Turks. "Yes, of course," he said. Although I found his beliefs disturbing, and I told him so, I was impressed with his congeniality and eagerness to share his opinions and beliefs without rancor. "You must read the Koran," he said. "50,000 Germans have converted to Islam." Turns out he was also a successful businessman, owned a textile firm employing 45 people and owned five houses, which made his harangue against capitalist ring a bit hollow.

Abdullah with Army Hat
It's my third day in Turkey - very different and far more confusing than Eastern Europe. The accommodations have so far been spartan-like; buses and taxis, the primary modes of transportation; people, like Abdulla, Eyup and his wife, eager to give advice; others wanting to give me a piece of candy, a piece of bread, or buy me water or tea; all wanting to help me in anyway they can; and most importantly, wishing to talk and explain what they're about. As a parting gift, Abdulla had given me his worry-beads. I had bought him a WWII Turkish army hat at the outdoor military museum. I shared a taxi with Eyup and his wife, who wanted to stay in the same hotel as I to continue our conversation, but we weren't able to find one with two rooms free. I'm not sure I would be having this experience if I hadn't been traveling alone.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Talking Basketball

KIRKARELI, TURKEY I was going to blog about lessons I learned on this trip, but that will have to wait. I planned to take the bus to Malko Tarnovo, a town near the Turkish border for $4.50, but no one could tell me how to get from there over the Turkish border and where I go from there. Anxious about what I was getting into, I allowed a taxi cab driver to talk me into taking me directly to the border. "Across the border, there are hotels, buses, and taxis," she promised me in very broken English. It was an hour drive and would cost me $50. As we approached the border, there was only wilderness, and then a solitary guarded gate. "Border," she said. "50 meters," Pointing to the other side where I saw no sign of civilization. I showed my passport to the guard and he waved me on. Schlepping my bags I encountered another post, and again they ask for my passport. I walked through eight passport controls, at one point I had to buy a visa for $20, and about half way through, a lone taxi driver started hustling me. A Turkish family took sympathy on me and told me not to listen to him, "He only wants to take your money. Wait for a tourist bus to come. They will give you a ride to the next town." I continued through the phalanx of passport checks; the taxi driver continuing to pitch me in unintelligible English. At the end of the controls, there was nothing but more wilderness - no sign of civilization. I decided to negotiate with the driver who I finally convinced to take me to the next town for five Euro where he promised me I could catch a bus. It was a remote rustic country village, about ten kilometers from the border, and well off the beaten track. We pulled up to a van, amidst a handful of buildings that served as the town center. I immediately knew my options were limited. The van was the bus he had promised. Two men were in charge of the van, neither of whom spoke English, except to say, "Twenty-five Euro to next town." I was in a fix; the weather, however, was beautiful and so I decided to sit down and get to know these guys. One of the three knew sufficient English to ask me where I was from. "San Francisco," I said and his eyes glistened. "America good," he said. "America and Turkey friends." I nodded in agreement and said, "Turkey Basketball good!" All three, excitedly, nodded their heads in agreement. The one who spoke some English eagerly explained that one of the Turkish players plays for the Chicago Bulls and another for the Miami Heat. After about fifteen minutes of trying to talk basketball, I said, "Ten Euro." The one who spoke the best English said, "Okay, get in," and without further comment other than to shake my hand and to say his name was Hassan drove me to a hotel in Kirkareli, a town where the adventure continued but in the interest of brevity I better sign off for now.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Swam for an Hour

Beach in Sozopol
BURGAS, BULGARIA In Sozopol, I swam for an hour, 'luxuriating' in the clear salt water, although not as salty as the Adriatic. Most of the tourists are back in school or on their jobs, leaving the beach to an older crowd. Out of the water, the pace is slow and authentic. Here's where a writer like Hemmingway might choose to write. I'd love to stay longer but it's Nick's last day and he needs to get back to Varna. He'll drop me off in Burgas, another coastal city like Varna, where I'll spend the night before trying to find my way to Turkey. Burgas is about an hour drive from the Turkey border, but due to the century-old hostilities between the two countries, light years away. From Burbas, the shortest way to Turkey is by bus but you have to take it all the way to Istanbul, a seven-hour trip. I'd like to go to one of the towns over the border. The best advice I've gotten so far and more than once is, "Take the bus to Malko Tarnovo, about an hour from here, and ten kilometers from the border. From there you can catch a cab to the border and walk across into Turkey." "What do I do when I get to the other side," I've asked. "Don't know, I haven't been there." has been the response.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Old Town Fortress

View from Room in Sozopol
SOZOPOL, BULGARIA The weather sunny and warm, Nick and I rented a car and drove south to Nesebar on the Black Sea, shimmering dark blue, clear as the Adriatic, and just as inviting. Even at this late date the town attracts tourists, some Germans and Brits but no Americans. Like so many of these old coastal towns, it's built out over an island on the ancient ruins of the Byzantine and Roman empires. We spent about two hours snapping pictures but understanding little of the history before getting back on the road and continuing on through Burgas before arriving at another island fortress-like old town called Sozopol, with which we quickly fell in love. We found a small hotel on the rocky cliffs with a view of the beach below and the town across from the island. The price, including free wifi and air-conditioning, $26.50. Many stores and restaurants had already closed for the season and as evening approached, a brisk breeze, coming from the east off the sea, made it feel like Fall was in the air. Our waitress told us it snowed the whole month of December last year, something it had never done before. "The snow," she said, "was up to our knees."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Nirvana

Fishing off the Pier
VARNA, BULGARIA, I'm here, the resort town on the Black Sea - my destination, my nirvana. It can't be over until the fat lady sings? What can I possibly write? The beach stretches for a kilometer below the hotel in which we're staying. To the right is a pier built over a jetty upon which a gaggle of fisherman cast their rods in vain. To the left is another, much smaller jetty, beyond which is another beach, and then another jetty, and then another beach, and so on. The water, unlike the Adriatic, is slightly murky - but beyond the jetty to the left, it becomes clearer. It's early morning and promises to be a warm sunny day. The beach is slowly filling with sunbathers. Many of the women wear nothing but thongs, the men are appropriately attired. A very fat, copper brown, naked woman is wading a few feet off shore, bending over and picking out sea shells, her large breasts almost touching the water. On closer inspection she's not completely naked, she's also wearing a thong I hadn't detected through the rolls of fat. I'm almost tempted to take a picture. No; that wouldn't be in good taste. This should be the end of my blog. I made it. I made it to Varna. The fat lady didn't sing but she did appear. But I have 25 days to go so I'll push on and continue to blog - it's lent a certain structure and meaning to what otherwise might have been a pointless trip.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lined Up to Get in

Stara Zagora Monument
STARA ZAGORA, BULGARIA Our train to Varna didn't leave until three and so I had time to walk the tree lined avenues and parks of Stara Zagora, the Roman ruins upon which the city was built, and through a modern museum documenting the history of the city dating back to the neolithic period. The warm sunny weather and back to school celebrations created a casual festive atmosphere. No one though was in a hurry - they seemed to relish the slow pace. I can understand why the woman on the train chose to retire from her job in NY and retire in Bulgaria. Prices are very low and for those over 65 the government pays for your health care needs. Nick had asked the woman if life had been better under the Soviet Union. She answered, "Everyone had a job. The government took care of all of our education and health care needs." "What about the block apartment buildings?" I asked. "We had a housing shortage and people lined up to get into a 'Khrushchoba.' My sister still lives in one." It wasn't all paradise, I surmise, since her husband, as a result of a fluke in the system, fled to the West and she and her son followed four years later.

Stray Dogs
Stray dogs everywhere. I've said that before but it's an issue a roving anthropologist just can't let go of. In an article I read, "There are now about 9500 stray dogs throughout Sofia, according to Peter Petrov, the director of Ekoravnovesie, the municipal company entrusted with managing the capital's stray dogs. Numerous cases have been recorded of people being attacked by packs of strays in Sofia." Nick also did some research and although what he found relates to Romania, could relate to parts of Bulgaria as well: "When 'Centrul Civic' was built, approximately 40,000 families and 3,000 pet dogs were dispossessed of their homes. Most of these dogs became strays, and rapid breeding led to a population of over 250,000 stray dogs by 2001. Mayor Traian Băsescu had initially planned to euthanize as many stray dogs as possible, but international outcry — led by actress Brigitte Bardot — resulted in the substitution of a spay-and-release program instead." On a positive note, the dogs seem very friendly and simply looking for a good scratch.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why Are You Here

Stara Zagora Train Station
STARA ZAGORA "Why are you here?" is the most frequently asked question followed by, "Tourists don't generally come here." - no guided tours, no tourists shops, but people eager to talk. Stepping out of the hotel, a man with his two kids quickly approached us and in good English, "Is there anything I can help you with?" Seeing that we weren't sure why he would be volunteering his services, added, "My wife works at the hotel and told me you were here." The man had returned to Stara Zagora, his home town, after living in Houston, TX, for seven years and seemed excited by the opportunity to talk to a couple of Americans. A retired woman sharing our compartment on the train, after twenty-two years of living in the Queens, had just moved back to Bulgaria. "It's not as expensive here," she said. She too was surprised that we had picked Bulgaria to visit. Actually, when we got off the train, faced with a desolate and delapitated train station, I wondered what the heck had we gotten ourselves into and was glad that Nick was with me - no hotels or signs of a city or old town to invite us, just a park across the street and a few buildings on the train side of the street. A clerk in a fast food joint next to the station gave us the names of the "best" two hotels in town and for $2,50 a cab driver took us there, where, to our surprise, we found a very nice three-star hotel with wifi, breakfast, air-conditioning. There was no old town but we were in the downtown area, from which we could comfortably stroll the pedestrian walkway - a relaxed friendly atmosphere prevailed. It wasn't such a desolate place afterall.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A City Without Airs

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
SOFIA, BULGARIA Stray dogs everywhere - barking all night long; drivers racing through pedestrian right-aways; otherwise, what's most unusual about Sofia, for this part of the world, is its normality - relaxed, cosmopolitan, clean, with some interesting museums, churches, and historical sights; but no throngs of tourists. It's a city without airs, and sadly, from a wanna be roving anthropologist's perspective, without any apparent irony to whet one's intellectual curiosity. It's hard to find something to write about under these conditions. Nick and I made it over to the Archaeological Museum and learned how far back and rich Bulgaria's contribution to civiliation extends. Nick had some work to do, so I continued on to the International Museum of Art, interesting and enjoyable, but, with the exception of some Hokusai prints, without any recognizable artists. Consistent with the "no airs" atmosphere in this capital city of over one million there are remarkably few restaurants. We found one, though, just a couple blocks from our hotel. We were their only customers and enjoyed a modest meal of roast lamb with a very fine bottle of a local Cabernet.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Moving Toilets

Hotel Continental
SKOPJE, MACEDONIA When you go to Skopje, do not stay at the Hotel Continental. Too tired to inspect the room or care that the TV and the air conditioning didn't work, I fell asleep only to wake around three with an upset stomach. As I sat down on the toilet, it shifted under me and almost tipped over. It had broken off from its foundation. Balancing the stool under me, I was able to finish my task but then found it wouldn't flush. Returning to bed, I noticed the sheets I had been sleeping in had blood spots from a previous resident(s). I checked my computer to see if it had charged, it hadn't - none of the electrical outlets worked. Upset, I went downstairs to the front desk. The clerk was puzzled that I hadn't reported this earlier but nevertheless, on my insistance, gave me another room. Over a breakfast that was inedible, Nick reported that his toilet was also broken and that his shower hose had broke off after turning on the water. We decided to catch the next bus out of town.

Roma Girl
Hotel Continental symbolizes a third world culture that I had not as yet experienced on this trip. Outside the hotel, filth, and poverty abounds. Under a highway overpass, between the hotel and the bus depot, a community of gypsies, amidst the squalor of heaps of garbage that they had either collected themselves or others had brought in for them, had set up a couple of scrungy tents and a hut made of cardboard, tin, and loose pieces of lumber. I tentatively approached a family of four huddled around a small fire, black smoke rising from the burning rubbage. I held out some money. The father got up and took the money and motioned that he wanted more. I shook my head, "No more." His son, no more than six, shouted something that must have meant "money." I took out my camera indicating I wanted to take a picture. Seeing the camera, the dirty, but very cute, three-year old, with mud on her face, ran to me and started posing. I snapped a couple of pictures wishing I could take her with me. Had this always been their life and would it always be this way?

Skopje Street
Before the bus left, Nick and I had an hour to walk around the town center - broken down shops and buildings, trash strewn streets, a mixture of minarets and steeples, and no McDonalds. Groups of men sat around drinking coffee - maybe talking politics. They looked at us suspiciously but were also anxious to engage in conversation. "American," one pointed at me. His buddy, toothless and smiling, "Obama good!" The first one countered, "Obama bad, Bush good." A third added, "America bad!" As we continued our walk, an older man started talking to us in German. "This is a good country. The weather is good but the people are poor. They're bad too. They use drugs." At the bus depot an older man, speaking English, eagerly volunteered information on exchanging money, buying tickets, and getting to the right platform. Although our stay in Skopje was short and brutish, I doubt if I'll ever forget the experience. Would Paris have been more fun?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Leaving Won't Be Easy

Skopje Airport
SKOPJE, MACEDONIA Nick worked on a client contract while I sought ways to get us out of Montenegro. I learned quickly that leaving this little country was not going to be easy. The political tension and hostility within and across the former Yougoslavian countries as well as with the neighboring countries; Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Rumania, and Hungary, has created havoc with the transportation system. No matter which direction, or which country you choose, the transportation is either non-existent or extremely restricted. To go by bus or train, if either actually exists, just a couple hundred kilometers, can take twelve or more hours, which is what it took us to get into the country from Belgrade. Going south to Albania would have been nice, but to get there, you have to take a taxi to the boarder, walk across the boarder, and take another taxi to the nearest town; hopefully there you can catch a train or bus, but not too far because the same problem you had in Montenegro, you'll have in Albania. Unwilling to spend another twelve hours on a train, I decided we needed to fly out of the country. But similar to ground transportation, the options were very limited. There were no flights to Albania, Bosnia Hercegovina, Kosovo, or even to the capitals of the other major countries in the area: Sofia, Budapest, Athens, or Bucharest. One can fly to Belgrade, Serbia, or Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Since Skopje was the only destination in the direction of Varna, I opted to get tickets on that flight. After four hours, I announced to Nick our next move. Fortunately, I didn't have to do much convincing.

Fortress Walls for Miles

Kotor, Montenegro
KOTOR, MONTENEGRO Spectacular - all of Montenegro! I don't believe I've used that adjective yet. On the expansive shores of Skadar Lake between Podgorica and and Petrovac we found the remains of a castle - Nick and I had it to ourselves to explore. In Bar, along the Adriatic, we treked around the crumbling ruins of the old town at the foot of Mount Rumiza. In Budva, with its sandy beaches, we discovered its old town built on an island that was originally connected to the mainland by a sandbar. In Sveti Stefan we weren't allowed to visit the majestic hotel complex that covers an island reachable by a promenade over a sandbar - it's reserved for the rich and famous. In Bigovic, a peaceful fishing village, accessible through a rugged winding single lane road, we lunched. Nick had squid and I seabass - delicious - our favorite dishes. In Kotor, we gawked at the fortress walls running for miles around and up the steep mountain cliffs. We decided to huff and puff a third of the way to the top before it started to rain, but not before we snapped lots of pictures of the fjord below ringed by mountains percipitously rising out of the sea. A little further down the road in Perast, the mountains continue to rise straight up from the sea serving as a backdrop for this fishing village where a church has been built on an island a few hundred meters out in the bay. Shifting down into first and second gears, Nick powered our way up the 1749 meter-high Mount Lovcen. It started to rain again, but not until we were able to take pictures of the sea, fjords, and mountains shrinking below us. We had almost reached the top when an approaching car signaled us to stop. "You can't get through. There's been an accident." Mifted, but glad that we had discovered the natural beauty of this area, we turned around; through miserable driving conditions, we returned to Podgorica via Budva.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Strange Encounter

Nick Calling Home
PETROVAC, MONTENEGRO Nick and I rented a car, drove to the Adriatic, saw some incredible natural and man made sights, and found a quaint little beach town (Petrovac) within a small cove along the Adriatic where we decided to stay. I could bore you with all the exquisite sights we took in but I'd rather tell you about a couple we met this morning in Podgorica. Until then we hadn't seen any Americans and the hotel clerk had told us we were a rare commodity. But then, as we were about to sit down for breakfast, an American couple greeted us, "You're the American gentlemen from San Francisco?" "Yes, and you?" "San Francisco, Mission District." "Southbeach." "We work there." "Where?" "At Wallgreens, Fourth and Townsend." "You're kidding. We shop there all the time. What do you do there?" I said. "I'm a Pharmacist," the man said. "We get our prescriptions filled there." I said. "What's your name?" the Pharmacist asked. "David Beck." "I don't remember that name." "How about Debra Robins?" "Oh yes," he exclaimed. "She's definitely one of our top ten customers!"

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

They'll Destroy the Car

View from Train
PODGORICA, MONTENEGRO We were on the sleeper train 12 1/2 hours 4 1/2 hours longer than scheduled. "Did we take the wrong train?" I asked a fellow passenger. "No, all the trains run late. On the single tracks through the mountains, they have to wait for other trains to pass before proceeding and when those trains are late, everything backs up." Nick on meds was able to sleep through much of it but I could not. Our luck though was to find a hotel Hemmingway would have loved just a few meters from the train station in this remote part of the world. Podgorica with 200,000 is the the capital of the six-year old country of Montenegro, a country of one million. The city is not beautiful but the surrounding mountains give it a special isolated charm. Like the rest of former Yougoslavia, the country is conflicted. The population voted for independence, but many want to be a part of Serbia. Our hotel clerk is quite vocal, "We need to be one country with Serbia." But with respect to the Croatia, "I hate the Croatians. They're all liers." And on Kosovo, "No, they should be a part of Serbia - definitely. It's your fault. You're the boss," referring to the United States. The hotel can rent us a car and we can drive to any of the neighboring countries but Croatia. "No, they will see the plates, and destroy the car," the clerk exclaims. Although Montenegro is not a part of the European community or the Eurozone, they have adopted the Euro as their currency. Prices are low. We should save some money here.

Hotel Mr. President

Museum Sign
BELGRADE, SERBIA A large painted portrait of Vaclav Havel hung over my bed. In every room of the hotel 'Mr. President' was a picture of a president; George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, George Bush. I asked at the front desk, "Is Stalin included?" "Oh yes," the clerk said smiling. "What about Slobodan Milosevic?" She looked down, furrowed her brow, and shook her head. "What about Tito?" She raised her head, her face bursting into a smile, "Oh yes, he has the penthouse on the top floor!" "You like Tito," I asked. "Yes, he was very good. We weren't as poor then." Nick (my friend who will be traveling with me for awhile) finally arrived and joined in the conversation. We grilled the young clerk about Belgrade, the 1999 bombings, and the current political situation. I insisted that we visit the Military Museum where the sign read: "65 Years of Victory over Fascism." At the museum we told the attendant that we were espescially interested in the last 65 years referring to the sign outside. "Yes, it's all here," she assured us. We paid the $2.50 and wanted to start from the present and work backwards. "No, you must go in the other direction," she insisted. We complied. The museum's narrative was that of a single Yougoslavia (Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Kosovo, Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro) unified in their heroic fight against oppression. As we approached the exit, the exibit concluded in the year 1945. Disappointed, I asked the attendant, "What happened to the '65 Years of Victory over Fascism?'" "Oh, that exhibit ended in June." "Who discontinued it?" Nick asked. "I don't know," she said, rolling her eyes. "Why the sign outside?" I asked puzzled and mifted that she had led us on. She just shrugged her shoulders as if to say I don't know.

Monday, September 6, 2010

65 Years of Victory

Apartment Building
BELGRADE, SERBIA The buildings are blackened, broken down, and filthy; laundry hangs off balconies; streets are strewn with cigarrette butts and other trash; people are dressed in soviet era hand-me-downs; a sweet but grimy seven year-old holds out her cap asking for money. I feel sorry for her and look around to see where her adult handler might be hiding. A seedy sinisterness hangs in the air. I'm not feeling safe.

"Aren't you a little scared," A young man asks, recognzing my American accent, as I'm about to check into the nearest hotel.


"It's been just eleven years since you bombed them."

"Where are you from?"


"Wasn't that a NATO operation and isn't Norway a part of NATO?"

"Yes, but that's not how they see it."

A sign over the military museum reads: "65 Years of Victory over Fascism." They think they've been victorious? All those years under communist rule, the legacy of which you can see in the squalor of those grimy concrete block apartment buildings, the disfunctional transportation system, the bureaucratic passport controls, and the stolid gloom and lack of enterprise. They've experimented with democracy and the free enterprise system; they chose the genocidal Slobodan Milosevic. I don't know where this country is headed, but it's certain, it's too soon for them to claim victory.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Educational Systems

Craig Vinter
BELGRADE, SERBIA Since I had no traveling companions during the six hour train ride from Zagreb to Belgrade, I'll report on some previous experiences: from Ljubljana to Rijeka I rode with two students (Engineering and Law) from Spain; from Graz to Maribor with two Czech students (music and medical). Different countries, but the same college experience. Out of high school (gymnasium), they had to choose a course of study; once chosen they could not deviate from that course without starting over. They studied only courses pertinent to their chosen fields. The law student said, "I've only taken law courses - no history, no science, nothing but law." The medical student said, "I don't like medicine, but I can't aford to start over." In contrast, Rachel's University won't allow her to declare a major in her freshman year. The California JC system is giving Josh time to explore his interests before choosing a university. Some noteworthy people have chosen this course: John Madden and Bill Walsh attended the College of San Mateo. Craig Vinter, creator of artificial life, also began his studies at CSM. In his autobiography, Vinter says, it was an English teacher at CSM that had the most influence on him. It's interesting to speculate if these notables would have achieved the success they had, had they found themselves in the European school system. The European system strikes me as unimaginatively sterile; efficient, however, in cranking out PhD's of every ilk. You see "Dr" titles everywhere. It's comical to see politcal campaign billboard's with "Dr" before the candidate's name as if that certifies the candidate's qualification.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Billion Dollar Idea

Billion Dollar Idea
ZAGREB, CROATIA The laundromat, the only one in a city of 800 thousand, is about twenty minutes by tram from the main rail station. Although I had the address and I had found the right street, I still had to ask for directions twice before finding the tiny place in an inconspicuous corner of a large concrete apartment building. It had six wash machines and four dryers, none of which was coin operated. An attendant took my load of wash and said, "Come back in two hours but no later than three because that's when I close." Nothing to do, I took the tram back to town and returned that afternoon. The lady charged eight dollars. I paid another three dollars riding the tram to and fro. It struck me, here's a fantastic opportunity - a chain of laudromats. The hotel clerk had told me, "You won't find laudromats anywhere in the former Yougoslavia countries. This is the only one I know." I had noticed, throughout Eastern Europe, people hang their clothes on their balconies to dry. An elderly man born and raised in Croatia but now living in Australia said, "There are all sorts of business opportunities here. People just don't get it. Under communism starting a business wasn't allowed." Someone seems to be trying to change that. In the City Guide, there's a section outlining the steps in setting up an LLC. One company claims it can set one up within seven days, Wanna be billionaires, here's your opportunity.

Friday, September 3, 2010

I Love America, But...

View from Bus
ZAGREB, CROATIA Chris, 17, born and raised in Zagreb, was my traveling companion on the 3 1/2 hour bus ride from Zadar to Zagreb. At 6' 4", he had been recruited as a linebacker by Mater Dei High School in New Jersey where he was returning for his senior year after working the summer in Croatia. Fluent in English and German, he plans to attend West Point next year. "I love America, but eventually I want to return to Croatia, because this is where I was born and raised," he said. "The government here is corrupt. You've heard of our former Prime Minister, Ivo Sanader, in cahoots with the mafia? We have a beautiful country but the government keeps screwing it up." The trip went fast, as Chris answered questions, and volunteered information about his country, but with respect to those perplexing rocks between Split and Zadar, he had no clue. One mystery he did solve is why the bus only takes 3 1/2 hours while the train nine. "The train has to go over Mount Velebit. That was the original route of the bus before they built the freeway and the tunnel through the mountain." Arriving in Zagreb I was able to find a hotel quickly - the best room I've had so far. I'm going to try to get my wash done tomorrow, but I learned that the only laundromat is outside of town.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Not So Functional

Zadar, Croatia
ZADAR, CROATIA No one reommended I stop in Zadar, but I thought it would be a nice way to break up the five hour bus ride to Zagreb. Zadar lies on the Adriatic between Split and Rijeka and from the little I've seen appears to be a city and area worth exploring. I say "appears to be" because I spent the afternoon trying to find a place to stay. There is just one hotel in Old Town and it charges $200 per night and another outside of Old Town that charges $150. In hindsight, I should have taken one of these hotels. With no taxis in sight, I ended up walking ten kilometers with luggage in tow to end up in a hotel that is close to nothing. Oh well, live and learn. I give Zadar my lowest rating for accessibility, just one star. Actually, of the ten countries I've been to, Croatia, with all of its historical and natural charm, is sadly the least amenable to the traveler; much of its disfunctionality due, I suspect, to the political climate. A curious example of the country's disfunctionality is the phenomenon I noticed on the 110 kilometer bus ride from Split: beautiful scenery, the Adriatic on one side and low mountains on the other, but rocks everywhere; no agriculture, just rocks, shrubs, and stubby trees. Curiously, as far as the eye can see, considerable effort has gone into carefully, but often haphazardly, organizing the rocks into mounds, fences, pyramids, squares, and circles. Often the rocks seem to delineate property lines, but to what end? There aren't any homes or farms; there's nothing grown or raised. Did this happen recently or over thousands of years? I fail to see the functionality.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tranquil Blue Sea

Trogir, Croatia
TROGIR, CROATIA The ancient town of Trogir is on a small island sandwiched between the mainland and another bigger island, Ciovo, 27 kilometers from Split. More than one person told me I must see it; indeed it's truly picturesque, crumbling, with a history dating back 2,300 years - first settled by the Greeks. I made the mandatory trek through the Old Town and Kamerlengo Castle, then took the bridge over to Ciovo Island, the sea was a tranquil blue, smooth as a mirror. A small cove on the far side allowed access to the sea off a few protruding rocks. As I arrived an older couple had just finished swiming and were laying out their towels on a little space at one end of the rocks. I kicked myself for not having brought my swimsuit and settled for sitting on a rock with my feet dangling in the water. After a few moments a man came down the rocky incline, inspected the water, stripped down to his briefs, and dove in. No one else showed up, so I bravely did the same, and for the next five hours swam, off and on, in this serenely peaceful secluded little cove. I must have forgotten or maybe had never truly experienced before what it's like to swim in placid salt water where it's almost possible to fall asleep floating on your back.