European Union, Catholicism and the Triple Gem
November 6, 2013
My two days in Zabalj were very entertaining! After learning about my fascination with Rakija, my hosts organized a trip to the local “Pecara” (Rakia distillery). Since his car was at the repair shop, Gasha, my host, saddled up his horse and together with his family, we rode around town and to the distillery.
Traveling by horse buggy is nothing uncommon for the people in Zabalj, and many cars passed us on the small local roads. The distillery was located on outskirts of town on a large parcel of land covered with plum trees. The owner, his wife and son greeted us and invited us into the back. There in an open stone structure, surrounded by barrels full of Rakia and crates of apples was the distillery.
The first step to making good Rakia is to get the best apples or fruit available. Meaning grow your own! On location were acres of fruit trees. Once the fruit ripe it is then blended, and mixed with sugar and filtered water in a large barrel. The mixture sits in the barrel for up to ten days (depending on the fruit) and awaits distillation.
The mixture is then placed in the first still and distilled at a low temperature. The distillate cannot be consumed and must be distilled another 1-2 times, (depending on alcohol concentration desired) before being consumption.
According to the owner, the first distillate contains lots of metals and is too hazardous to drink, (a few years back several people died from drinking poorly distilled rakija!). The second distillate, is very sweet and similar to a Sherry. The third and final distillation is the true Rakija.
Personally, during the afternoon hours, I prefer the second distillate, but to save face I drank a few shots of the final distillate with the employees. The owner was extremely kind and gave me a bottle from his special collection after the tour! RAKIjA!!
The next day, while packing Gaby for the road, I discovered a large crack where the seat tube connects to the bottom bracket. A bit worried about the safety and strength of the frame, I decided to ride to the city of Novi Sad to find a welder.
The Novi Sad has a “hip” bicycle repair café called “Cultural Exchange-Bike Kitchen” run by some expats and a few locals. However nobody working there knew anything about bikes! And worse where I could find a welder. Unlike the bike kitchen aspect the Cultural Exchange was in full swing! From all corners of the café I could hear stuff like “when I was in Bangladesh” or “the political system in south east Russia is so corrupt”…. Few minutes later I struck up a conversation with a local named Nikola. We talked for a little while and then I told him my problems with Gaby and that I was trying to get to Croatia for a meditation retreat. It turned out that Nikola was also a Buddhist, who practiced the Thai forest tradition, (the same tradition that my father practiced before coming to America). He was very well read in the Buddhist lineage and planned to visit Metta forest monastery, (which is about 60 km from my home town), when he came to California. He also knew of a place where I could get my bike welded. Afer chatting for a while he invited me to stay at his apartment with him. Later that evening while meditated, I recited the Pali Triple Gem, (a Thai Buddhist Chant that my father taught me when I was a boy) and to my surprise Nikola chanted along with me! I slept comfortably and the next day we cycled around town to find the welder.
Upon hearing about my journey to Southern China, the welders fixed my bike free of charge and said ‘Mi Srbi nemamo mnogo sem da budemo darežljivi” – meaning ‘ We Serbs don’t have much but to be generous’. The damage was more profound then expected, and it looks like Gaby will not make it to China!!!!
I said goodbye to Nikola and cycled the road to Croatia. Unlike Serbia and Romania, Croatia is part of the European union. Meaning that the country has significantly lower debt and can qualify for extensive loans from the rest of the Union. These differences become apparent immediately after crossing the border. Fancy cars, remodeled houses, and children walking to school in name brand clothes. The symbol of the west is here, and its also reflected in the prices (Almost everything I have purchased in Croatia is twice as expensive as Serbia).
About 20 km after the border, I cycled through the city of Vukovar, which suffered extensive damage during the Serb-Croat war. Many houses and buildings still had bullet holes and outside of the city was a large memorial cemetery.
I am currently in a bit of a time crunch. In order to arrive at the monastery in western Croatia by 4pm on Saturday I need to ride 400 km in the next three days. Currently my plan is to wake up at 5 am tomorrow and ride 180 km, then 120km on Friday followed by 100km on Saturday. Hopefully arriving at the monastery just in time for the evening mediation.
The retreat is a traditional 7 day Chan Zen retreat. Each day will begin at 5 am, and will be spent in formal and informal meditation practice. Rules of silence (no talking and no communication, e-mail and phone included) will also be observed. I will try to get around to writing again before the retreat begins but due to my the crunch it may not happen. Either way all is well here and I wish you all the same!
A few days ride to a Zen retreat
November 8, 2013
The last two days have been pretty exhausting. Leaving Dakovo I realized that there were several small mountains to cross, and tomorrow is supposed to be the worst! I am staying in a small village turned city and must sleep soon to prepare for the 5 am start. I can’t stand cycling in the fall/winter, there are too few daylight hours to get where you want to go.
Today while riding through a village I stopped to take a few pictures of a moss covered barn and befriended a few locals. They invited me to lunch and coffee and instead of declining (due to the amount of riding I had to do) I accepted. The lunch was short and afterwards a man who answered to Robert gave me close to 30 euros.
Finishing a beer now in a Café called “Bambi”. Word has it that there is some great camping spot on the outskirts of town near an abandoned factory, hmm will have to see. Any how my panniers are packed with zucchini and garlic for the evening meal. Will write again after the retreat next weekend.
Silent Illumination, the culmination of a 7 day Ch’an retreat
November 16, 2013
Silently and serenely all is forgotten.
Clearly and vividly all is understood.
When one realizes it, time is limitless.
When one experiences it, one’s surroundings come to life.
(Excerpt from The Practice of Zen)
My last day of riding from Karlovac to Fuzine was difficult. The camp site near the abandoned factory turned out to be worthwhile and I slept a few hours later than expected. Without an idea of what to expect when I arrived at the retreat in Fuzine, I packed up Gaby and started the long climb out of Karlovac. The man who recommended my campsite was not joking when he said it would be steep. To make maters worse, just after leaving it started raining and a strong head wind kept me pedaling even during descents. Finally, after 70 km of steep winding roads I climbed to the top of pass and could see the valley below, Fuzine was only 30 km away
I arrived, cold and wet, and still had an hour before I was to be at the retreat. The town of Fuzine is situated between a large lake and the highest mountain in the alps, an hour from the capital and 40 km from the Mediterranean. On my last Zen retreat, there were only two meals a day breakfast and lunch, with dinner consisting of a broth or some sort of compote. With this in mind I loaded up on calories and splurged on a full tub of ice cream with bananas before arriving.
a large three-story building, that doubles as a hostel during the tourist season. I was greeted inside by the owner who told me that he “once did a 5 day silent retreat and almost went crazy” . He was quiet for a while then said “You will be fine though, I am sure”.
I wasn’t worried, back in 2007 I attended a 5 day silent retreat with my father in upper Oregon. The first few days were difficult and my body was in a lot of pain from sitting lotus but mentally was nothing like “insanity”. I was given a nice room overlooking the lake and I met my two Croatian roommates who were senior practitioners.
The retreat consisted of some 26 or so people, and was led by a man named Zarko Andricevic, the leading Ch’an Zen teacher in the former Yugoslavia region. The schedule for the next 7 days was simple:
Not all day was spent sitting, there was much waking meditation and yoga but the purpose of the retreat was to quiet the mind and consciously keep focused on the present moment. Several techniques on breath meditation were outlined and Zarko was a really good teacher, who had a lot of insight to offer to my practice. It is truly amazing how much time one spends thinking outside of the present moment, you wouldn’t even notice how much fantasizing and fabricating you do until you try to quiet things down.
The silence was nothing new compared to being alone in the wilderness, but keeping the mental banter silent was difficult. It was also difficult getting used to not packing up and moving from place to place. With reading, writing and all other forms of “distraction” not permitted there is a lot of time on your hands. I came to enjoy it but from what I observed others felt pretty agitated.
After 7 days of not speaking and or making eye contact, I had completely forgotten that the rest of the practitioners were Croatia! When we all started talking again I was amazed that these people were foreign to me. The retreat also gave me the rare opportunity to get to know someone before speaking to them. How often in our lives do we spend 7 days with someone before making eye contact and speaking to them? I highly recommend a silent retreat for anyone who really wants to know what is really going on inside their minds . If 7 days seems too long, then try a 3 or 4 day retreat. But really the opportunity to find a quiet place, free from distraction to deconstruct the mind is priceless.
During my 7 days here at the retreat I felt as if I were peeling away the layers of delusion, Like peeling an onion. first taking away the skin to reveal the thick first leaf, and then slowly, painstakingly peeling leaf after leaf trying to get to the sprout (my true self) in the center.
Today was the official end of the retreat and I cried with gratitude. We all socialized for a while I couldn’t keep myself from beaming with joy as I made eye contact with my fellow friends. Interestingly enough, I had to think for a while when I told everyone about my journey. Not that I had forgotten about what I was doing here, but it was more like I hadn’t thought about it in a while.
Winter is in full swing here in the Croatian Alps. During the retreat it snowed, and the neighboring peaks are dusted. Temperatures are below zero, and it is time to gear up for Bosnia. With the Mediterranean being less than 50 km away I will sleep on the beaches of Rijeka tomorrow evening, and start the journey east again. I received two donations while on the retreat, thank you to all those who have help support me in any way!
Descending to the Mediterranean
November 19, 2013
I left Fuzine with a new sense of mind and spirit. My perceptions felt enhanced and I climbed the last pass out of the alps with ease. Colors, smells, sounds, tastes flooded my perspiring body… I am ready to receive the grace of nature and let me find a respite in my quest. The top of the pass yielded a beautiful view of the northern Croatian Coast. I am in a very interesting place; Slovenia is less than 100 km north and Italy is a short ferry ride across the sea.
I have not seen the ocean since Riga, and slowly descending the steep roads I could smell the sea. Temperatures rose and soon I was cycling in sandals, shorts and a tee-shirt. My plan was to avoid the huge coastal city of Rijeka and head toward the island of Krk. A long bridge took me from the Croatian mainland to the largest island in the Adriatic.
The interior of the island had a very similar environment to the Tenaja/De Luz mountains near my home town. Sumac, sage and olive trees grew throughout the interior, and after climbing a small pass I entered the city of Krk. Almost completely deserted, the island is a huge Summer attraction but during the off-season most businesses close or have shortened hours. The island was part of Italy before the second world war and the older generation speaks a crossed Croatian-Italian dialect. Camping, I easily had an entire beach to myself. Following the beach outside of the main town I found a deserted cove and pitched my tent less than a meter from the calm sea. Ice cream can last 5 hours outside the freezer, I had just purchased a small tin for dessert when I befriend a Slovakian business man who invited me to drinks at a nearby bar.
The water is cold, but swimmable. The high salt content makes for a good float and my only company that evening and following morning were the fisher man working small boats off the coast. The Croats share a similar feeling to the cold as do the Chinese. While leaving Fuzine a stranger told me “When I look at you, I am cold”, while cycling on the relatively warm Krk I passed a cyclist riding in a Everest summiting jacket! It is no wonder that the beaches are deserted, as the water is probably only a few degrees above freezing to most people.
Leaving the city of Krk, I cycled to an abandoned campground for an evening of meditation. On my out of the city I encountered many people picking olives, and after lending a hand I was invited for a quick tour of an oil mill. 4-8 kg of olives make 1 litter of extra virgin oil.
Sleeping in an abandoned camp ground is a bit creepy, it kind of had a Friday the 13th feel. The evening was overcast but a full moon pushed its way through the clouds and once again I had a completely deserted beach.
A tropical storm has moved in and it is pouring today. I left the abandoned campground this morning and headed to the more touristic city of Baska. With the rain, Baska feels more deserted, but the city is known for its beaches, it should not be hard for me to claim one for myself tonight. I am warned that the “Bura” (wind from the Croatian Alps) is forecasted in the next few days. On bad days Bura can make the bridge too dangerous to cross, and to avoid an extended stay on the island I will depart by Thursday.
Looking forward to some oatmeal and banana mash. Bananas and Dalmatian tangerines are the cheap crop on the island but all other produce comes to the island on trucks paying heavy transport duties. It is good to take a temporary break from cabbage. At the retreat in Fuzine there was one particular meal that got my stomach working overtime. The meal consisted of; Cabbage lasagna, tofu stuffed cabbage rolls, and a raw cabbage salad. There was also a raw onion, sprouted bean garnish. Not a good idea before 6 hours of meditation!
Anyhow, will be heading back to the Croatian mainland tomorrow or the next day depending on weather. I have a few ne contacts thanks to some new friends from the retreat, and I am looking forward to cycling the fertile Dalmatian coast south of here.
November 23, 2013
A 4 day storm raged the beach city of Baska, and finding a camping spot proved a bit difficult. The high tide made beach camping impossible and in the open land large puddles soaked my shoes. I cycled around the small city for close to an hour searching for either a guest house or some hidden shelter to pitch my tent. With the tourist season over most guest houses were closed and my only option was a ritzy 4 star hotel. Ready to fork out the 30 euros for a room I stumbled across an abandoned campground with an unlocked restroom. The men’s room was trashed and stunk like urine, but the woman’s side was clean and had a working hand dryer. I set up camp on a bench that was propped up in the corner, and found that the campground had free internet. I cooked a hot dinner of oatmeal, apples and banana and watched a BBC documentary on the author(s) of the Old Testament.
The next day, while searching for petrol (the nearest gas station is over 20 km away) I met the owner of a local trailer park. He was working with a construction crew demolishing an old building, and offered to fill my fuel bottle. We talked for a little bit and he asked me where I was staying. After I told him about the cozy restroom and functional hand dryer he offered me a trailer to sleep in. I accepted and between rain spells moved into a tiny trailer.
Baska has one of the most beautiful beaches! A large cove protects the beach from rough waters, and the pebbles in beach reflect a beautiful turquoise blue color. Once again I found the city almost completely deserted, and roamed around during the a sunny afternoon.
The city cemetery is located on the hills above, and offers a beautiful panorama of the area. After climbing a long 18% grade hill I came upon ancient graves marked by stacks of rocks. A beautiful view but an otherwise creepy place I enjoyed the view while listening to the call of crows.
Yesterday I departed my trailer and cycled to the northern part of the island. Upon leaving Baska, I past the city of Jurandvor, and viewed the famous “Baska Tablet” in the Church of St. Lucy. From Jurandvor I cycled west through the cities of Vrbnik and Soline, climbing hills covered with vineyards. I arrived in Omisalj, the northern most city on the island before dark and I met up with an acquaintance from the retreat named Ljubinka. She invited me to stay in the basement of her house (which is carved out of rock) and let me join her Zen Yoga class at the community center. This morning she baked me Croatian biscuits and I met her partner Noma a local archeologist.
Tomorrow I will join them in exploring their parcel of land on the western part of the island, and learn more about the local history. I celebrated Thanksgiving a week early by eating some cold kielbasas, I will have to think of something better this week!
Winter plans? It has gotten pretty cold in the last week, and for several days all transportation to and from the island was stopped due to the “Bura” ( north-east mountain winds). On one particularly windy day a large tree in the center fell on the super market and all food shopping was suspended for three days. The winds have gotten up to 240 km/hr!
I have become good friends with my hosts (Nino and Ljbinka). They call me “Bojidar”, blessed boy, because I share the same December birthdate as the prophet. No longer in America, I now introduce myself as “Bojidar”, and have become quite popular in the rarely frequented Zen yoga classes. Since the end of the Serb-Croat war Croatia has become extremely Catholic and in many small cities it is considered taboo to practice yoga. Here on Krk there are only a few people willing to go against the church and most of the classes are empty.
I am really enjoying staying in Omisalj. The town is small and people leave their bikes and their personal property unlocked and out in the open. When it rains people frantically run around gathering their laundry off the lines and stuffing all their possessions in their tiny apartments. . I see the same people walk the streets everyday, and I am always greeted with the same genuine smile.
My hosts have a second home, used for rentals and retreats, about 20 km south of Omisalj. They often make trips to the house and I am always invited to lend a hand in preparing things for winter. The house is completely off the grid, and was built from the rocks of an ancient cow barn. The impressive structure incorporates two rain catch basins, 4 solar panels, compostable toilets, an organic garden and a cow powered grain mill! For extended relaxation there is even a solar-powered Jacuzzi. Nino built the house himself mixing several tons of concrete and building each wall out of hundreds native rocks.
I have been invited to stay the winter here in Omisalj and I am considering accepting the offer. The island, although windy and cold is extremely beautiful. With several neighboring islands easily accessible by ferry, and many ancient ruins of Roman temples, I think I can keep myself occupied till early January.
I am planning a winter de-tour adventure, and will explain in further details once I secure transport. Hint: “The Holy lands”. I am plan to be gone for the entire month of February, and with the next few weeks off I can start thinking about visas and the trip across Central Asia. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are deserts and will be extremely hot in the summer months, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will be covered in snow until June or July. The visa situation is also be rather problematic in that several countries only issue them when applied in one’s home country. Meaning that when I enter Turkey I will have to send my passport to Washington DC, and hope that I can get all my visas by the time I exit and enter Georgia.
I hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving!
Panniers of Holiday Jam
December 5, 2013
I find my mind drifting and wandering to the far corners of the globe, and feel the insuperable urge to continue down the vast road. Staying in one place, a small island of about 400 square km, has proven quite challenging. Spending my days wandering about, and cycling familiar roads does not conduct the same current in veins. I have acquired a few acquaintances, and have ridden long single track to remote villages. I continue to be greeted with praise, and am often offered cheese, bread, Rakija and dried figs from the island. am frequently told the same Croatia proverb, that in order to see and travel the world one must wait for “the wind to pick the vegetables from ones garden, and blow the olives from tree”… But if “one has no garden and no trees then there is no need to wait”.
“the only wait is for the sun to greet me each day”
I have become quite popular in the weekly community yoga classes and the attendance has grown to around 15. I have been asked repeatedly to teach and Monday will be my first Croatia yoga class. Many students think that because I am so flexible I have some sort of “secret” practice that if taught to them, will enable them too to grab their heels in a forward bend.
Keeping strong in my days off the road, I have filled my panniers full of festive Croatia Jam, which is made all over the island. Each pannier can fit close to 5 litters of the sweet topping, and it makes for a good snack at the top of the steep hills.
Omisalj is decorated in Christmas lights, and the local church choir have started practicing in the evenings. I have started to learn Croatian baking and will soon be a master at making “burek” and apple strudel.
A trip to the depths of the Adriatic
A departure from my normal cycle touring diary, this post documents my first archeological expedition off the coast of the Krk in Adriatic sea.
Last Summer, while swimming off the coast of the island, Krk. Two German tourists spotted what looked to be an underwater cavern filled with pottery and other objects a few hundred meters off shore The tourists told informed the local authorities who eventually brought the news to my host in Krk, Nino Bok (head of archeology on the island). Nino then submitted all paper work to begin an underwater excavation of the site. Lucky for me it took the Croatian government several months to process the paper work and he wasn’t given official permission until a few weeks ago.
Having been granted permission to excavate, Nino charted a boat, and assembled a crew of 5 divers to uncover the remains of the ancient site. Since staying on the island Nino and I have developed a sort of historical bond and he invited me to join him and the crew in the excavation.
Yesterday after spending the weekend at the retreat house, I boarded a dingy with Nino and Marko (head of the diver crew) and traveled a few km to the site. Patiently waiting at the site was the Bela, the crew of 5 divers and the captain. Climbing aboard I was overwhelmed with the amount of equipment; scuba tanks, wet/dry suits, generators, and an assortment of chemicals used to clean the generations of age off of the artifacts. Also, making communication bit difficult, was a high-powered used to pull up sand and small rock materials covering the site. The divers took 2 hour shifts and chain smoked when aboard.
Meanwhile in the galley the cook/captain was whipping up stew, marinating beef and chasing shots of rakija with honey water. I joined the cook for a quick snack and a few rounds, then made my way back to the join the divers as they brought up a large bag of objects from the bottom of the ocean.
The bag was filled with pottery shards, rock sculptures and small bronze fragments. The most notable items of the day were a pre-Roman pagan coin circa 2nd century, and a stone fragment with a carved flower (dating back to the 4th or 5th century). After all the items were brought aboard two professors from the University of Zagreb arrived to inspect, and photograph the items.
After a motivational speech and a few pictures everyone gathered in the galley for BBQ meat, clams, rakija and a celebratory bottle of white wine courtesy of Michele Ferrari* (Lance Armstrong’s Doping Doctor).*(Apparently the captain and Ferrari are good friends and travel the seas together in the summer time).
After the festivities, all gear was packed up and the long trip back to port began. While the rakija and wine were being passed around the ship drifted off course, and the captain pulled out ancient 18th century compass, found off the coast of Italy, to guide us back to port.
Finally reaching the port I joined Nino for a meeting with the sponsors and finally arrived back in Omisalj in the late evening. Exhausted and a bit sea sick from the long trip back I fell asleep only to be woken up a few hours later with a terrible headache.
Unfortunately I had forgotten that a few days earlier that I filled my water bottle with olive oil. In my desperation to find a drink of water I took a huge gulp of the warm green fluid and puked my guts out. Overall a great time at sea!!
Anit-gravity yoga shorts?…6 months on the road
December 18, 2013
Yesterday, December 17th, marked my 6 month anniversary of being on the road. In celebration I created a small film encompassing my journey between Murrieta, CA and Omisalj, Hrvatska. Looking back, I reflect on a series of ups and downs, mostly attributed to the illness and bad weather. However the hardest days were not spent climbing steep mountains (Norway, Slovakia and the road to Fuzine, Croatia) or digging holes in the middle of the night for waste (Poland), but rather being overcome with sadness and uncertainty when I said goodbye to my Mother and family at the start of the journey in California. I have since felt that family can exist outside of the general term, and have found my way into the hearts of many strangers. The theme of this trip was so easily verbalized by a Brazilian I met in Alaska last year, “the hardest part about traveling is leaving”.
Teaching Ashtanga yoga to a class of Croatians was a bit like of what I expected. Many of the students had never done a sun salute or even a downward dog before, and I took it upon me to give as much instruction on each pose as possible. After asking the class if English was understood, (I should have given a written test), I proceeded with some basic Kundalini breathing exercises and deep stretches. All went according to plan until I the sun salutations.Trying to advise the class on proper alignment in down dog and cobra, I instructed the class to watch as I demonstrated each pose, however instead of observing, everyone just followed my movements and got into each pose. The minute I stopped doing the sun salutes and tried to work with individual students everyone in the class would stop and stare at me. When I tried to teach the class what not to do in a pose and demonstrated the “wrong” way, they would all follow along and do the pose the “wrong” way. The mirror effect! I should be teaching dance, not yoga! Crank up the Gloria Estefan! I thought to myself, “if the class is so good at following along… I should introduce a few arm balances”, a few shrieks and gasps later I learned this was a bad idea. A lady in front said that her doctor advised her against balancing poses, hmm ok, but the other poses are alright? A few other students actually thought I had a pair of anti gravity yoga shorts on, and because of this futuristic technology I was able to lift into the arm balances. All in all class went well, but I received many complaints about difficulty.
I have recently developed a fascination with theology, especially early Christianity (pre-Constantine). My excitement is focused mostly on the Lost Gospels (the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt) and the Dead Sea scrolls (found in western Jordan). The translations of these texts have painted a new picture of early Christianity and Judaism to me and have inspired me to make a detour to the promise land. My overall route will not deviate but on February 1st, I will fly from Sarajevo, Bosnia to Sharm el Sheikh in the land of the Exodus (Egyptian Sinai). I will then cycle to St. Catherine’s to see the epic Mt. Sinai (location of the burning bush and where Moses received the Ten Commandment tablets) and proceed along the Red Sea into Jordan. Once in Jordan, I hope to cross the desert into Petra and see the ancient Nabataea caves, as well as traveling 400 meters below sea level to the dead sea. From there it will be a several days ride Israel where I hope continue the pilgrimage in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Hebron and Galilee. Please let me know if there are any places in this region that you recommend!
Dancing like a UFO
January 2, 2014
Boom boom boom… the electro music seemed to drown out the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. The water was beginning to come through the windows and into the room, the rug was saturated, and my shoes began to float, my feet didn’t feel wet and I started dancing….dancing on the water…. what is in that rakija? 1 am New Years day, Malinska, Krk.
Happy New year!! I am flooded with good energy and I don’t want the world to stop spinning. The sun rises, sets and clouds float unnoticed over our heads, let us be more aware of each day and let us enjoy our times of happiness and gratitude. Ahhh…. Everything just begins when it is time to move on, by Monday I will be on the road again and the fog of the past will roll in.
It was a typically cold evening on the 31st, and after a celebratory late evening meal and rakija, I contemplated going out for the evening. My mental state was that of a mime, perfectly still and observant in a world of chaos. Festivities were just beginning and the bands were setting up for the last night of the year. I befriended a few locals at the grocery store a few days earlier and my gmail account had an unanswered invite to a DJ house party that night in Malinska. I layered up, brushed my teeth and packed my tooth-brush for what I thought would be just another night.
15 km of hills, frost and the occasional reflective glare of wild dogs brought me to the church center. It wasn’t hard from there to distinguish the direction of the party, the bass from the speakers echoed through the empty alleys and streets, if I were a zombie there would be only one place to go. I was greeted by a house of about 12 people, and two DJ’s. The setting was extremely laid back, in that everyone was sitting in the 1970’s style living room drinking rakija out of classy crystal glasses. No dancing, but the records were spinning. I sat next to the Christmas tree which looked like a cross between a palm and a pine, and was given a glass, with a tall pour, (that was the end of Julian Wong for the night). With conversation rarely being in English I took off my shoes and started some yoga practice, then I joined up in an English conversation about Parkour.
I followed the crew to the beach to see the fireworks, and started feeling a bit odd. The boom of the music was still going round in my head and continued to play while the fireworks exploded over the ocean. The water was also so dark and clean that I was having trouble determining which direction was up and which was down. Boom boom boom wave crash wave crash boom boom boom….. Like a mantra I was feeling the sound and earth.
Next thing I knew I was back at the house, on the dance floor, barefoot, melding my body to the sound of the music. The sound of the waves had not stopped and I was beginning to feel like I was stuck on a beach during high tide, the water was just beginning to touch my feet, and I knew that if I were going to have a good time I would have to leave behind my clothes and start swimming. “What is in this Rakija”!!? I shouted. A long time of no response, similes and a bit of laughter, my dancing neighbor finally responded, “Oh, I forgot to tell you …. We all decided to mix a few grams of MDMA, with the Rakija for the party”. “We all”…”like all of you decided to do this and didn’t tell me” I responded. MDMA….MDMA, I searched the undergraduate Chemistry degree data base stored in my head, and actually pinpointed a lecture in Organic Chemistry 108b, MDMA….Ecstasy in its most pure, crystal form. “Ecstasy”? I shouted “Yeah” was the response….”.Sweeet” Laughs. Everyone at the party had started saying “Sweet” and it was starting to get annoying, but I was feeling way too good to be bothered in any way.
It all made sense now, the water coming from the windows, the dark reflection of the sea, this was all part of my subconscious, and the serotonin was pouring in. I was literally plugged into the DJ and everything was everything I had ever wanted. I started getting hungry and I noticed a girl dancing like a UFO dipping a spoon into a classic red keg cup, she offered me some and after a taste it turned out to be a kale smoothie with Brazilian hazelnuts. What was in that rakija!!
I returned to the consciousness of Julian Wong close to mid-day, I had scratches and cuts on my back, and after a while I remembered trying to take the party to ancient abandoned church. In the kitchen I was greeted with huge smiles and great vibes. After a little chit-chat the conversation shifted to spiritual practice and Sun Gazing. “We must be aware that suffering is an optional state of being”, “Our options are limitless”…The girl with the smoothie from the night before and her boy friend were on a spiritual path and were big proponents of Sun Gazing (the practice of gaining nourishment from the sun) and the “5 Tibetans”, an ancient yogic practice from the Himalayas.
After a few hours of new practice, I promised my new friends I would return and pedaled back to Omisalj. What a night, and how interesting to meet others on the path. It was past midnight by the time I got back to my small cave abode. With less than a few hours of sleep in 48 hours I was surprisingly energized from my earlier practice of the “5 Tibetans”. I lay in my sleeping bag and closed my eyes, the sound of waves returned and I visualized a powerful sun guiding me across the sea, I then fell into a deep asleep.
I am pedaling again. Panniers over filled, and packed like I have never been on a tour before. I am being honest with myself, that I am a bit anxious about what lies ahead. I have spent a wonderful 6 weeks making new friends and becoming close to others, and it feels a bit different to be on the road again. Strangers, what an unintelligent word, there is nothing strange about the human beings around me, whether I am in a bazaar in Bosnia or in American Apparel in Los Angeles. We all have something inside that leads us in a direction and the only thing that I can see that is strange is when we don’t admit to ourselves what we really want. I can not expect another to truly understand what the world means to me, and I should not feel like I need to. My path is different than others, none is better than the one, and what brings us together is the passion that we have to get there, somewhere.
Thank you all so much for your Christmas cards and gifts! I received several emails with scanned handmade cards, and I am with friends in this world. I missed my 1 pm ferry to my landing point between Krk and the mainland. I will now arrive after dark and will have to search through the new landscape with little light. I went on a long trek with some friends last night to the supposed most beautiful place on the island, Paradise cove. I felt it while I was near the rocks and the water something inside is waiting the seclusion. The moon continues to grow, and the last few nights I have seen Orion through the cloud breaks. I will follow Orion all the way to Bosnia, and then continue to follow this isolated warrior to Egypt and Jordan.
Well here’s to starting new again, and I may I never stop learning about life. Will write again when I get to Pula.
Island hopping to Histria
January 12, 2013
The battle begins at dawn. The first rays of sunlight break through the clouds at the edge of the horizon, and the orange color washes over the evening grey. Almost as if taken by surprise, the clouds let the sunlight through, until they gather enough strength to hold it back. There is no hiding. At least for now, shadows begin to grow and narrow, and locals begin to inhabit the city streets. A few hours earlier, social interactions between strangers would be cautioned, now we are open, joyful and ready to start another day. I am walking. Home finally, my gait is laborious, as I have been on my feet all night. Ten hours earlier, I stopped to get a falafel at Jerusalem Kebab, and quickly befriended the Palestinian owner and Nigerian chief. My long evening of festivities began. Now I am alone again and so close to sleep.
The road to Pula was difficult to say the least, I must admit I had to stop and rest while climbing the steep cliffs that hug most of the northern Croatian coast. I have entered Histria, the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea. The beaches once so accessible are now far below. At night, it is like riding into a void. The road traces the cliffs for 30 km and eventually leads into a large valley. It is foggy and extremely damp. I stop repeatedly to catch my breath, before noticing my rear brake pad rubbing the rim.
I have become more bold, or rather careless in my camping style. My first night, I slept in front of a summer hotel “Kimen”, and awoke before dawn to a team of drywallers unloading their tools ready to begin a day of hard work. After apologizing for waking they offered a bed in one of the completed rooms but I declined, and set off for a long day of riding. Tres, my island landing point between Krk and the mainland is more mountainous, and is barely inhabited. There is no silence, wind, waves and cow bells echo in the distance.
Traveling by bicycle is a constant shift from the 1st to the 3rd world. One day, hours are spent hours finding clean water, food and a safe place to camp. The next is in a café and it is time to decide what type of coffee beans would be good in a mocha.
Pula is a very sleepy, laid back city that employs most of its residents on the docks building ships. Summers are extremely popular here, and the small population of 60,000 grows to over a million during the cities music festivals, Outlook and Dimension. The old city is home to the Arena, a huge Roman amphitheater built 50 years after the completion of the Roma Coliseum.
It is hard to get a taste of what summer life is like here. Friday and Saturday nights were rather quiet but I some how managed to stumbled across parties both evenings. This is cycle touring at a different level , and sometimes seems to mimic a celebrity life style. I will be in villages and nature again soon and have decided to leave Pula tomorrow in order to see Croatia’s most beautiful national park, Plitvice Lakes. I have picked up a tarp and an extra dry bag to hold back the rain and snow, and I hope to hold up camping in the high altitudes. But need to leave the city lights and late nights.
Busted Plitvica National Park
January 18, 2014
You must pay a fine! You have no respect for park rules! You think that just because there is a road that cars and buses travel on means that you can ride a bike here…. Look, there is a sign, look read the sign! Either you pay or we will call the police (First encounter with Croatian Forest Rangers, Plitvica National Park)
After a fantastic day of hiking around waterfalls and lakes, and thoroughly enjoying Croatia’s most popular national park, I returned to my campsite to find two angry Croatian Forest Rangers. These guys were big, buff, had shaved heads and were pissed off. I had broken 3 parks rules; camping (not allowed in Croatian National Parks), cycling (Not on forest paved roads) and forgetting to pay the day fee (I admit that I am guilty of this). I tried to reason with them, thinking that they were just trying to get a bit of cash off me, but I quickly learned that they were serious when they pulled out the carbon copy ticket book. All the red meat and rakija in their blood would not let me go without paying a fine, and I got off to a bad start by not giving them my passport, rather having them use my expired California drivers license as identification (Better safe than sorry, they could have been cons). First they wanted to charge me 800 kunas, then we reasoned to 600, finally I got them down to 400, but tried to get away with 200. Bad idea!! Authority is power, and when your job sucks (being a Ranger in the winter season), you enforce. OK!! 400 kunas, close to 80 US dollars for camping and cycling in a National Park!! WTF!! The worst part…… I had to pack up all my gear and head out of the park after dark and was warned that if I tried to camp again within park boundaries I would be fined again. With this sort of treatment you would think that I was starting campfires or trying to mug a bear, all this for peacefully camping in nature. Sometimes it is obvious that there is nothing you can do, the more you fight the more you sink and this was the case. Well…. what to do, I tried to make the best out of it. I pedaled out of the park in the dark, and felt a bit hopeless, but found a nice guest house about 10 km down the road. I am now staying with a Asian Chief who specializes in hand pulled noodles, I guess things could be worse.
(Earlier this week) Leaving Pula, I pedaled through the darkness to an open field, and slept under a clouded sky. Unaware at the time, I slept near a rooster coop, and awoke quickly to a premature cuckadoodledoing every hour between 2 to 6 am. I packed up at first light, and spent a long day cycling in the rain. Damn, in my time off I have become accustomed to leaving in doors and having a roof over my head during a storm. With nothing to turn too, I found sanctuary in the hood my rain jacket, that was until the wind picked up. I pedaled through Rijeka and had a very close call in a tunnel at the south end of the city. Riding on the sidewalk in the tunnel I slipped, skid and totally biffed it, grabbing onto whatever I could I ran into the wall to keep from falling into the busy street! Cars honked, and the sound of brakes echoed in the tube. I pushed my bike from there on and coughed-in the putrid air.
Just outside of Rijeka I found an empty park near a Pizza parlor, and set up my tent in a non-stop downpour. Everything was soaked, and I slept naked in my damp sleeping bag. I could smell the crusty bread and garlic coming my way from the restaurant and for a few hours I could hear the waiter calling to the chief “Malo Pizza, (Small) and Veliki Pizza (large)”. Another night of cabbage and bread but I spiced things up with a little tomato sauce.
The rain continued all the next day, and after cycling some 60 km I departed the coast at the city of Senj, and climbed into the interior. A deep canyon, sliced through the ocean cliffs, and I pedaled with undaunted strength through a terrible head wind. I used my international diplomacy techniques (mentioning the names of famous Croatian Athletes, offering Rakija, then open my arms wide and gesturing sleep) to befriend a farmer, and he let me camp in has backyard. All night my tent swayed back and forth in the strong, cold mountain winds.
I climbed through fog, hale and fierce winds all the next day, and at one point the wind blew my spare tire from the rack of my bike. A nice Italian couple drove by picked it up and drove it back to me. “Your American right”? They asked. “Crazy”, they said. It is nice to know that other than being known as the “international peace keepers” were are also known as “Crazy”. I finally arrived within the Plitvica National Park boundaries, but slept outside so that I could load up on supplies for the next few days.
Two loaves of bread, pickled cabbage, ajvar, noodles, crackers, and a local bottle of Rakija. Panniers stuffed, I was ready to enter the park. When I arrived at the entrance there was no one in sight, the guard kiosk was empty and the patrol booth that issued tickets was deserted. I did a bit of off-roading, and managed to sneak into the main park road. There I camped next to a waterfall and the rest is history. Although being hassled by the Rangers I thoroughly recommend visiting the park, it was absolutely beautiful!
Cycling the Croatian Chili Pepper
January 24, 2014
The shape of Croatia is a lot like a chili pepper, not the southern Chinese chili peppers which are practically bell peppers, but more like the northern Chinese, long and skinny, hot and spicy, a La Jiao pepper,(so hot that you will look to the sky for respite). The stem and the seeds run through the interior of the country starting at the capital, Zagreb, moving west to the busy port city of Rijeka, and ending at the interior hub of Knin. (Knin was a stronghold for the Serbs during the Serb-Croat war, and was held in captivity for close to 5 years). Further south, is the more tasteful, seedless part of the pepper, the cities of Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik, offer a window to the ancient world in terms of architecture and history.
The weather has been unforgivable; rain, torrential winds and hail, continued to follow my path from the Plitvica lakes all the way to Split. Small patches of snow, remind me that the weather could be worse, but on several occasions my feet and hands went completely numb, and all day I awaited my warm sleeping bag. My tent has become the equivalent of a “work truck”, small leaks have gotten so bad that I now have put out my cook set during the night to collect the dripping water. The zipper on the fly has also failed, so to keep the water out I had it sewed shut in a local village, now to get in I have to crawl. It all adds to the enjoyment though of living in the wild, and I am thankful for all I have.
The sun came out during my visit to Split, and I took the opportunity to dry all my gear on the busy tourist strip. Mistaken for homeless I was quickly offered a warm meal and a few beers, more Croatian hospitality. Beautiful ancient structures, the old city was built in the 3rd century, and the majority of the citizens still drink water from original artesian well, the Jadro Spring. The Diocletian palace, built during the same period, is the hub of the old city, and offers a glimpse into Roman times.
I am now pedaling south on the Dalmatian coast on route to Dubrovnik. Each day I am offered handfuls of seasonal oranges and greeted with smiles from the local farmers. The rain continues though and I am now drinking coffee in a café while my tent sits vacant on an isolated road.
A modern day Zhuangzi
January 27, 2014
The wind battered, and swayed my tent all night, I awoke to a frozen landscape. The grass crunched like corn flakes under my bare feet, and my water supply was now too frozen to drink. I walked a few hundred meters to a local restroom, teeth chattering, skin pulled tight around my bones. I looked in the mirror and smiled. Like a frozen lake, the movement from my lips caused my face to twist and crack. I was looking at a reflection of myself ten years from now, skin wrinkled and damaged from the sun. It was not hard to imagine a slouching, grey figure that I will soon become. If this is the future… What am I waiting for?
It is mid June, I am halfway across New Mexico and the temperature on this average summer day is close to 120 F. I am in the middle of a 100 mile stretch, no utilities, gas stations or even a sign of life. Desert, black tar, and yellow sand. I pedal over a small hill and come upon a man pushing a shopping cart. His shoes are broken, his face burnt and an old cowboy, bill flapping in the wind, is pulled down over his eyes to shade his wrinkled face. He might be what the Chinese would call a modern-day Zhuangzi, although at first I was not sure the intelligence of a man walking across the desert at this time. “Do you have any gum” he asked. “Chewing gum”? I said. “Your walking in it” I replied pointing to the sun melted asphalt. We talked for a few minutes, like this, kind of half-joking, half Zen Koan speech. From what I could get out of him, his name was Jean, and he had started his trek a few months earlier, planning on walking all the way to North Carolina, with a shopping cart full of supplies. He offered me a melted power bar, I accepted and told him I was going, he then said “Don’t live your life like you have a 1,000 years”. I laughed an pedaled on.
Two days ago, while riding outside of Croatia’s southern most city Dubrovnik, a semi truck carrying a large stack of jagged rebar turned into me. Within a split second, I knew that I had to speed up to avoid the oncoming disaster, and pedaled with force to avoided a collision. After a few deep breaths, I realized how close I had been to danger, and that there was not much I could have done to control it. The cold northern winds (Bura) are so strong over here that the other day I was almost struck by a flying bumper! Like a toupee in a comedy film, the wind pulled a plastic bumper from a passing van, and threw it in my direction. The driver, unaware of his loss continued on down the road, and I turned into the road to avoid the odd-shaped plastic tossing and turning in the wind. This is by far the strongest wind I have encountered on this trip and is comparable to riding the Whittier Fjord in Alaska. The wind pulls branches from the trees, and pushes rocks down steep cliffs.
Yesterday I spent 6 hours exploring the small, Medieval city of Dubrovnik. The city has become quite popular in modern-culture as the set of the sci-fi T.V series “Game of Thrones”, and is one of Croatia’s most visited tourist destinations. The city was one of the largest and busiest ports in the Mediterranean sea, second only to Venice and was a sovereign state for hundreds of years connecting the east to the west through trade, culture and religion. Built during the Byzantium period 100-200 BC, Dubrovnik continued to thrive as a port until the late 1800’s. Built like a fortress, the old city is surrounded by stone walls 20-30 meters high, and still has many surviving outposts. Almost empty, I chose a rather inclement day to explore the historic site, but encountered another world traveler heading to Iran in a camper van. Walking around in I had the streets and long alley ways to myself, and found it hard to imagine a densely populated ancient port city. The city has a beautiful harbor, and I found myself looking more to the horizon than to the historic buildings.
Outside of the city I befriended a lady who took my hand and told me that it was cold to be riding a bike. She then offered me a room in her house and now I am the sun bathing on her porch overlooking the Adriatic Sea. This is the end of my Croatian adventures, tomorrow I will be in Bosnia and Saturday is my flight to Egypt. Will write again from Sarajevo, be alive! The first New Moon, Chinese New Year, is on Friday!