Meeting myself in 50 years

DCIM102GOPRO

I pedaled away from the Flower Festival and alone again headed into the snowy alps. I felt weak and seemed to have trouble climbing the steeper hills. but blamed my slow progress on the extra weight of handmade, wool traditional Albanian clothes given to me in the village. Towards the end of the day though my stomach started grumbling in an all too familiar way. “FUCK”!! I was a few hours away from coming down with a fever and diarrhea, and was stuck in the cold alps with little food and water.

Cold, windy Albanian Alps are not the desired place to recuperate in a tent

Cold, windy Albanian Alps are not the desired place to recuperate in a tent

A few along the mountainous road I stopped at a small convenient store with an inventory of junk food. Paprika potato chips, lemon juice soda, chocolate flavored crackers and 4 liters of water filled would be my diet until I could get to a bigger town. A fever was starting to take effect and I knew that if I didn’t find a safe place to camp soon I would end up on the side of the road. Other than struggling up steep hills I had spent the majority of the day fighting off Albanian teenagers. From my encounters that day I made the conclusion that Albanians under the age of 18 spend too much time tending sheep. On at least 6 separate occasions kids threw rocks at me, children would often chase and try to push me off my bike, and many kids with long sticks for tending sheep would try to hit me. These were the brattiest kids I have encountered thus far!

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This worried me as I looked for a safe place to camp. The last thing I wanted to deal with was kids trying to steal my gear and throwing rocks at me while fighting off diarrhea in my tent. I pedaled over a grassy field and found a secluded flat area behind a large rock. With great effort I set up camp, and dug the preparatory holes I would need throughout the night. This is the kind of situation where you wish you had a warm hotel room. I ended up camping there for 36 hours and here is the process that I went through throughout both chilly, rainy nights.

Albanian wartime concrete bunkers found throughout the Alps,

Albanian wartime concrete bunkers found throughout the Alps,

1. Wake up to pain in stomach, Unzip and crawl out of warm sleeping bag (hardest step)

2. Slip on rain-soaked cold shoes, and jacket

3. Crawl under rain fly in mud (zipper broken)

4. Relieve bowels in hand dug hole, wash with rain collected water (save all carried water for rehydration)

5. Crawl back into tent, remove wet clothes and return to sleeping bag

Throughout the first night I repeated the above process at least a dozen times, shivering with a fever. The next day the diarrhea stopped but only because there was no food in my stomach, after eating my recently purchased junk food symptoms returned. The problem with a stomach sickness like this is that you become trapped, there is little muscle and strength to pedal to a nearby city or town for refuge. After the second night I forced myself to pedal out of the alps and into the nearest city 35 km away. One of the hardest things to do pedaling with a fever, chills and forcing yourself to pedal up long steep mountains. Frustration can become unbearable and these are the moments where you contemplate returning home.

Frescoes from the 3rd century AD

Frescoes from the 3rd century AD

I landed in the Albanian border town of Peshkopi. Muddy pot holed streets, large polluting trucks, and dozens of punk kids teaming the streets. This was not where I wanted to recuperate and forced myself to pedal another 20 km into Macedonia. The border guards laughed at my composure as I slowly pedaled up to the kiosk, “Heavy huh” they said to me and laughed, “If you only knew” I responded. The Macedonian border city of “Debar” was very much like Albania and had a population of about 90% Albanians, 4 large Mosques and a small downtown strip with vendors.  The city’s sole hotel rented rooms above apartments on the 5th and 6th floor. No elevator, meaning I had to carry all my gear up the stairs and to make matters worse checkout time was at 10 am.

Macedonian flags outside the Orthodox Church

Macedonian flags outside the Orthodox Church

The next day I met a New Yorker on the streets who had recently moved to Debar to work for his fathers concrete business. I learned that most Albanians in New York and Chicago are from the small city of Debar, and he taught me a little bit about how to fabricate a minaret. There are only two large concrete companies in Macedonia and he is soon to be the boss of one, we exchanged emails and I pedaled on somewhat better but still weak. From Debar the road followed the coast of the lake Debar and through a large canyon which feeds water to the nearby lake Ohrid. I passed two touring cyclists along the way, and learned that both of them (Romanian and Dutch) were scared to cycle into Albania.

A few minutes of sun on the boardwalk in Struga

A few minutes of sun on the boardwalk in Struga

I arrived in the city of Struga completely soaked and found a guest house for 7 euros a night. Carrying my gear up a few flights of stairs I met an interesting Englishman by the name of Howard. Howard was close to 80 years old and had spent his entire life traveling on the wealth of his parents. He had never married or fathered any children and was still on the move. He had been to almost every country had spent months on remote islands in the pacific. In the few hours that I spent with him he told me countless stories of the Middle East , Philippines, New Caledonia, and South America. As much as he wanted to impress me with his tales I saw a completely different angle; loneliness. Traveling alone is great but will eventually lead to extreme loneliness, so bad that you are in complete denial.  This man was potentially me in 50 years, and from meeting him I knew right away the direction my current life would lead me in time.

Lake side Christian graves

Lake side Christian graves

Wooden Orthodox door

Wooden Orthodox door

Another rainy day, I pedaled to the historic Orthodox churches in the city and on to the touristy city of Ohrid. Ohrid is a cross between the Croatian city of Pula and Kotor (Montenegro).  An extremely small city built around an ancient fortress, half the city resides on steep hills with narrow cobble stone streets, overlooking the lake which in rough weather resembles a sea. The downtown area consist of several over priced clothing shops, kebab restaurants and a few Alfresco bars. Yesterday while exploring the city I stumbled into a local bar with live Macedonian Polka music.

Ohrid area, a lot smaller than the one in Pula Croatia

Ohrid area, a lot smaller than the one in Pula Croatia

Another day of exploring the city today and tomorrow I am off the mountains again where I will cross into Greece. Though difficult and at many times painful I am embracing every moment of this trip. I must not forget to be honest with myself.

View of Ohrid from the Fortress walls

View of Ohrid from the Fortress walls

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Albanian flower festival

"Goran" is a minority group of Muslims living in the high mountains of southern Kosovo. Goran man poses by Gaby

“Goran” is a minority group of Muslims living in the high mountains of southern Kosovo. Goran man poses by Gaby in the village of Restilice.

Closed!! The epic Kosovo/Macedonian border, which I had traveled so far to reach is closed. The highest border in the area, over 6,000 feet, located at the top of the snow-capped mountains is not only closed for tourists, but is completely snowed in. I turned around kilometers from Macedonia and had no choice but to retrace my steps back to Albania. In a way burned my bridge by entering Kosovo illegally and now I planned on returning to the same border that denied me access to Kosovo and ask them to let me back into Albania. My other option was to try to sneak back into Albania but pushing Gaby up the steep sheep trails, in the cold morning rain did not seem too enticing.

Old war torn buildings in villages of southern Kosovo

Old war-torn buildings in villages of southern Kosovo

Pedaling the steep muddy roads to the border, I held my breath as I reached the guard kiosk. If I am denied access to Albania here I will have to pedal over 300 km northeast to get back to where I started. The guard was reading the daily paper and as always was extremely surprised to see a cyclist on at the mountainous border. “Hello” he shouted, ” America and Albania friends”! He shook my hand and let me through after glancing at my passport, if only all borders were this easy.

Novosej villagers traditional dance during festival

Novosej villagers traditional dance during festival

Back in Albania again, I decided to return to the village of Novosej where two days earlier I had met my friends who had helped me into Kosovo. The once quiet and lonely village was now bustling with people of all ages, and many women were dressed in bright-colored costumes. “Welcome to the Flower Festival”, a man in a sport jacket said. “I teach English at the neighboring village, and it would be my pleasure to have you stay with my family for the festival”. The “Flower Festival” seemed pretty interesting but staying in the village meant that I could learn about Albanian village life, as well as sleep in one of the ever-present rock houses. It also meant that I could start partying!!

Barn storage house

Sheep house

The village center was now getting prepped for the traditional dance ceremony. Musicians were tuning middle eastern looking instruments, girls finishing their costumes and men practicing their traditional dance moves. The village was in the backdrop of snow-capped mountains and was towered by the Minaret at the local Mosque. The dancing started before the music. Men and women hand in hand formed a large circle and started doing footwork to an imaginary beat. Soon as if the tempo had already been determined the music joined the rhythm of the dancers. Men danced with women but on the side lines the sexes were clearly separated, almost like being at a 6th grade dance all the women were on one side of the center and all the men on the other. Most of the songs sounded the same but the singer would often hold extremely long notes with a very narrow vibrato which seemed to echo throughout the village.

Downtown Novosej village Albania

Downtown Novosej village Albania

I was attracting too much attention and constantly had a circle of people around me asking questions. On several occasions men would come up to me with their daughters and offer their hands in marriage. “Your daughter is beautiful really but no I am not ready for marriage”. I became overwhelmed and decided to wander around the village. Soon my host found me and invited me to a late lunch in his home with this extended family.

The family chief teaches me how to make and cut "Flee"

The family chief teaches me how to make and cut “Flee”

While staying in the village of Novosej all meals were the same and consisted of several of the following traditional dishes; Flee (thin dough baked in a circular pan, saturated in fat and syrup), Jeez (Cow or Goat Kurd served with spicy peppers), Diath (Thick slices of goat cheese),  jumesht (Goat or Cow milk), Buke (home-baked bread) and Change (Lamb meat). Sometimes if I was lucky there would be salad on the table which usually consisted of chopped onions, cucumbers and tomatoes. While eating I was introduced to the extended family, half the village was family and almost everyone was someone’s cousin or nephew. I quickly locked eyes with a young girl by the name of Rilinda who was my hosts cousin. She spoke some English and to the notice of others we were attracted.

Rilinda in traditional Albanian costume

Rilinda in traditional Albanian costume

At sunset the whole village journeyed out to the forest to pick auspicious flowering birch tree branches, which would be kept until the following year. All branches picked must at least be at the head height of the picker and can not touch the ground. I picked few branches and watched as the crowed gathered around and collected countless branches.

This part of the Festival reminded me a lot of Chinese New Year. Where every year, on the first new moon of the year, usually in early February, my family, led by my ambitions father, would travel around my hometown of Murrieta  looking for flowering Plum blossom branches for the family shrine. It’s not that we couldn’t grow plum blossoms on our land, on the contrary every house our family lived in always had a plum blossom tree but strangely enough they would rarely blossom at the right time for New Year. This usually lead my father and I on missions through town looking for flowering branches. This journey throughout town has become part of the celebration, and on my fathers last Chinese New Year I remember filling up his beautiful Lexus full of flowering branches growing on Clinton Keith and Calle De Oso Oro.

Birch tree blossoms

Birch tree blossoms

At 9 pm I heard the call to prayer from the local Mosque in the village and decided it was time for me to learn how to pray to Allah. After performing Obdest,( the ritual cleaning) I walked the stairs to the top of the Mosque and learned the proper method of Islam prayer. I retired to the stone house of my host, and slept in a cozy wooden bed near the fire-place. All night I heard the sounds of chickens, sheep, cows and the guard dog. But seemed to find some peace in the early hours of the morning.

Door to my stone house abode

Old door to my stone house abode

Rilinda woke me up in the morning and asked me stay another day and sleep at her house that night. She said she would do my laundry if I stayed another day with her and I agreed. Together with her parents we walked to the neighboring village of Shishtavec where he uncle was having a party. The village, almost as interesting as the party, still had Leninism and Marxism written in bold letters on the largest building in the center.

The party was a real hoot, Rilinda’s uncle an accordion player, played traditional tunes while the family and I danced and sang. The food, extremely filling as always, filled the large tables in the small house. After a few hours of dancing and eating we retired back to Novosej to Rilinda’s house. “Do you want to come with me and milk a cow” Rilinda asked, “Sure” So I learned how to milk a happy cow in the Albanian countryside. Later Rilinda’s mother taught me to make goat milk kurd and then showed me her quilting collection of Albanian rugs, clothes and costumes.

Mothers hand quilted Albanian rug

Mothers hand quilted Albanian rug

That night, while sleeping I was guarded by Rilinda’s father who slept on the couch next to my bed. However I caught Rilinda in the hallway and kissed her, goodbye my Albanian princess, and I returned to sleep.

Fresh flowers decorate village houses

Fresh flowers decorate village houses

I am now headed the long way through the center of Albania into Macedonia.

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Trapped in Kosovo!!

The ferry to Fierza was just big enough to fit Gaby and a few goats

The ferry to Fierza was just big enough to fit Gaby and a few goats

Koman lake ferry, through the fjords of Albania

Koman lake ferry, through the fjords of Albania

I have crossed illegally into Kosovo. My planned route of pedaling into Kosovo through the Alps failed when Albanian border officials denied me access, saying that the border was only for locals. After pedaling over 100 miles through some of the roughest and steepest roads since Alaska I was not about to let two border guards stop me from completing my route. Turning around I pedaled towards a large minaret visible from the mountaintop border and arrived at the small village of Novoseje, (pop. 5,000). I rode into the center (the mosque) and was quickly surrounded by many of the Albanian villagers. I tiptoed around cow, lamb and goat dung and entered the local café. A few minutes later after speaking phrases from the following; Spanish, Croatian, Albanian and Arabic, I found two guides who would show me a local shepherd trail into Kosovo.

The back roads into Kosovo

The back roads into Kosovo a ridiculous amount of climbing!

My Albanian Guides, just before crossing the barb wire fence into Kosovo

My Albanian Guides, just before crossing the barb wire fence into Kosovo

The trail was steep, muddy and half flooded. It had been raining for several days and many parts of the trail were now underwater. Riding was impossible, and I pushed Gaby through ankle deep mud and hiked in a downpour through a small village and several cemeteries. I am freezing, and for once glad at the warmth provided by pushing Gaby up hill. My guides converse with a few shepherds along the way and we reach a barb-wire fence. “This Albania, that Kosovo” one guide shouts between puffs of a cigarette. “We help you, then we go”, “Us no Kosovo, you OK”.  I toss over my gear, and with help climb the fence. Gaby, naked and free of all gear is then passed over the top. “Fat I Mire” (Good luck) I said good bye and was now on my own, in the middle of the Alps somewhere in Kosovo.

The trail into Kosovo was more like backpacking than cycle touring

The trail into Kosovo was more like backpacking than cycle touring

From where I was standing I could see a trail about 50 meters away. Earlier on in the café I remember being told that “after crossing the fence follow the trail to the village of Krusevo”. The rain had turned into a light snow, and it was beginning to get dark. I followed along hoping to see a sign of life but after 30 minutes cold and wet I found a flat spot and set up for the night. Not long after climbing into the tent I heard the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, echo through out the mountains. I was now in Kosovo.

Krusevo village Kosovo

Krusevo village Kosovo

I am currently at an altitude of over 5,000 feet and the weather is constantly shifting between snow and rain. Today I had the intention of crossing the bordering into Northern Macedonia but had to turn back due to a snow storm, lack of strength and food. I have no Euros!! The Albania Lek is now worthless and none of the villages have ATM machines or will exchange dollars for Euros. I walked around for a few hours today trying to exchange money, no luck but many locals bought me tea and food! My best bet now is to pedal into Macedonia, word has it though that the border, like before is for locals only. I am not trying another illegal crossing in these snowy conditions, especially since political relations between Macedonia and Kosovo are hot, several Macedonians were recently arrested illegally crossing the southern border.

Earlier this week DCIM102GOPRO

The ferry from Koman to Fierza was a real culture shock. I had heard that the 3 hour boat trip was popular among tourists but when I pedaled to the ferry terminal I was the only westerner around. I was expecting a large boat with a café and space for people to park their cars, you know classic spoiled westerner stuff, but it was nothing of the sort. The boat was a medium sized, Louisiana swamp vessel, with a trash trap used to protect passengers from the rain. Other than a handful of locals the cargo consisted of goats, vegetable buds (onions, and other root vegetables) and lots of groceries. I learned this a little later, but most of the passengers live in the remote mountains between Koman and Fierza, and Koman is where they stocked up on supplies. I tied Gaby to the helm and the boat sped off into the Albanian Fjords. Not wanting to share my seat with nibbling feisty goats, I sat at the front of the boat, and watched as we passed boat after boat filled with goats and sheep, entering deep into the mountains.

One armed captain guided the boat through all stops

One armed captain guided the boat and never spoke

The water reflected the jagged mountains, and trees seemed to grow even on the rocky cliffs . The landscaped seemed almost uninhabitable, no roads, power and little dirt for farming, but on the 3 hour journey we passed several rock houses perched on the top of steep mountains. Sometimes the mountain people would call out to the boat and the captain would stomp his foot. The boat would dock and we would watch as they future passengers would climb down steep rocky trails to the river.  Waterfalls seemed to be around every corner and the current along with the motor slowly carried us to the village of Fierza.

A random stop apparently the man on the shore lives up in the mountains somewhere

A random stop apparently the man on the shore lives up in the mountains somewhere

In Fierza I learned that “Shite” means for sale, and “buke” is bread, in almost every village you can find a sign that says “Shite Buke”. From Fierza I pedaled north through the Alps meandering my way to the city of Kukes. The Alps here are a bit lower than those in Theti and the landscape is rich with farmers, sheep, cows and goats. One morning I decided to wash in a small pond near my camping site, the water was a bit cold but it had been several days since my last bath. I was about knee deep when I noticed these “cute” worm like creatures  swimming up to me, “Hmm your cute what type of creature are you”….”Oh god, fuck, its a leach”!! One of the leaches grabbed onto my leg and I ran out of the water, luckily it hadn’t gotten too good of a hold and I was able to pull it off with my hands. Later I put a stick in the water and made a few splashes soon afterwards a few leaches came to the shore and even crawled onto the sandy banks!

Camping near leach pond

Camping near the leach infested pond

Here's a cute leach waiting for you to put your hand in the water

Here’s a cute leach waiting for you to put your hand in the water

In Kukes I met some Albania godfathers (Think Goodfellas in Albania). I ordered what ever I wanted and they told me that it was all on the house. I drank close to a gallon of beer then smoked a hash joint that was pretty much consisted of a finger rolled in cigarette paper!. The Albanian custom is to “cheers” (Zoo Mir) every time you take a drink, this pretty much insures that everyone drinks at the same speed, and that everyone gets wasted. Afterwards my new friends invited me to their village where they wanted to butcher a sheep in my honor. Before leaving we went to the local internet café where I helped one of my friends talk dirt to his half Greek half Russian mistress in English on facebook. After about 20 minutes of facebook laughter I passed out and awoke in a hotel in the city.

Albanian Godfathers, these guys out partied me

Albanian Godfathers,
these guys out partied me

Hoping the boarder cross to Macedonia is a success, if not will have to pedal north back to Albania! I will touch base again soon!