The World’s Cream On Homer’s Table….A Cycle

Mattijs and Mariah as they headed off into the mountains

Thursday, 22 September

My last post was about fly fishing yesterday, and I let go of the fact that I haven’t been able to land a Speckled Trout. I returned from the river in good spirits in despite having a good-sized trout on the fly only to have it snap the hook off and return to its life’s journey, and so instructing me to revert to mine. Standing at the agreed-upon spot for my ride back to Thethi, I watched as truck after truck went by to resupply the asphalt team laying a new road beyond me, down the valley. I was dropped off 4 hours earlier by Besmir, and we agreed that he would stop here to get me around 3 o’clock to take me back to Thethi. Thethi is the name of the actual settlement here in Theth National Park. To call it a town or village would be complete misnomers. There are 2 or 3 actual retaurants, and 1 grocery-type store. The rest of it is a crowd of bujtinas populating elbowing each other for guests. In a few years it will look like Aspen, or any other US mountain town. There is a rough gravel track, bearing little resemblance to a road yet, and only slight drainage when it rains.

While I was waiting for more than an hour, the road manager of the asphalt company approached me and in broken-English explained that no traffic would be coming through until much later. He asked if I was going to Thethi and I nodded, he asked if I wouldn’t mind riding up in one of the massive, four-axle dump trucks, and I shrugged and said yes. I offered him some money and he scowled, I apologized for the disrespect as this is how the Albanians are. They will help if they can, or they will find someone who will. The next truck would be mine. The breeze had increased to fluttering my coat and nearly pushing my hat off my head. I knew that it would be a long walk back to Bujtina Polia, at 12/13km (7/8miles), and it was mostly a grinding ascent. After hopping from rock to rock along the river, and scaling the steep banks, I was well shot physically.

Jimmy pulled up and I clambored up into the cab, with him taking first my fly rod, then my daypack. Again, I asked with no disrespect if I could offer him something for the ride… maybe beer/coffee money, but he refused. His English was very good and after introductions we began to talk about truck driving. I told him that I drove a Mack truck in and out of Chicago and the surrounding area for 33 years and he was in awe. I was in awe of his skill with our Mercedes behemoth. The road was sheer drop-off and barely wide enough for him to expertly navigate. We did the “Brother handshake” as he wished me well. I then began my walk from Thethi up to my bujtina, about a 4k (2.5miles). Looking up and around, I marvelled at the continiously-changing scenery, as the gusty weather was driving clouds in front of the sun and over the peaks, giving the feel of a time-lapse film as I stumbled up and down the rocky track.

The patio, the dogs, and our staff always welcome me as if I had lived here forever. I am always swaddled in their warm embraced, never feeling like a stranger, and offered something to eat or drink upon my return. As I came around the corner onto the patio, I met Geoff, a guide from the UK, and we began chatting. He was an affable man and we got on well as we discussed mountains, travel, people, and our past exploits. Geoff was co-leading a group that was well-peppered with folks from all professions and heritage. Later on when we were assembling in the dining room, I went to the little side table that I occupied most often. The staff and I call it “the little boy’s table”; it has become a running joke among us. The groups that come through here are, for the most part, very insular and exclusive. Every now and then, I will be invited to “the big boy’s table” and join whomever I had connected with earlier, or if there was more space due to smaller groups. The night before, I was invited to join Mattijs and Mariah, a grand couple from the Netherlands. It is not usual for me to be asked to join at the big tables, but every now and then, I am able to sit with “the cream of the world” as I have them. This was definitely the case with Mattijs and Mariah, and tonight with Geoff and his group.

Mattijs and Mariah were among the nicest couple of people I’ve met yet. They are from the Netherlands and really enjoying themselves here in the Balkans. Our conversations were spirited and open, with neither of us having to hold back. I will miss them. Meeting people like them really helps me to get through my odyssey. Later on, after talking to Geoff, he and his lady Ingrid plucked me from the “little boy’s table” and into their group. We pushed chairs down and I squeezed into the group. I was amazed at the life-stories of my table-mates. Geoff and Ingrid, among a couple others, have been leading these “meet-up” groups and hiking/trekking/walking through various parts of the world. I realized a bit of a common thread that runs through most of our lives here. We are on some sort of journey; to replenish, to seek, and to shake off the dust of our lives. The length and breadth of careers among us is varied and vast. Retirees and people actively still working, trying to reset their compasses as it were, and the opportunities to meet people you may not in everyday life. Mattjis spoke of many places near them to get out and enjoy the outdoors. I was surprised, as I am not that familiar with the Netherlands to know how much open space they have at their disposal. My group from the UK was the same in their touting of the innumerable sites to get out and enjoy a walk or more. As I sat and listened to some speak about their travels and travails, it was a modern Homer’s tale of broken-pledges, mis-directed hopes, and sirens and monsters.

The group from the UK. Geoff is on my left, Graham, my right, and the two Steves beyond him. In red is Reg, born and rasied in Baltimore, now living in the UK…they were a true joy to be with.

I also met Paul and Pip from the UK, and they were nothing short of endearing and sweet. They regaled me with stories of their travels all over the world. After doing Antarctica in 2023, they will have been on every continent on the planet. At our table, I was positioned between Ingrid and Steve, across from Geoff and Reg. Reg was born and rasied in Maryland, spent most of his life around the US as an exec, and retired to the UK. Reg is one of many US expats I have met here in Albania, and our reasons for living in Europe are nearly identical. As a solo traveler, it is an immense joy to be welcomed into a group, and to have intelligent conversation about anything and everything. Eleanor Roosevelt is commonly known to have said, “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; and small minds discuss other people”. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I have always tried to adhere to this principle. Here, in meeting the cream of the world, we rarely go any lower that the “events” portion of Mrs. Roosevelt’s adage. Being grateful for this experience never eludes me, and I give thanks in a constant manner, both inward and outward. After talking to the staff, they all agreed that the UK group (Geoff’s group), were one of the best groups to come through since June. I think it’s pretty high praise, considering the amount of people I have witnessed come through the door. I will see Geoff and Ingrid in the future. Geoff has actually swung me on SE Asia; A place I was certain to avoid because of the heat and sun. Thank you Geoff!

I have been reading Homer’s Odyssey, I think it is only fitting, and I have been through some of Odysseus’ trials. I am not sure if I can claim ownership of the Trojan horse, nor have I shoved a stake in the eye of the Cyclops, but I can fully grasp the loneliness, and the sporadic good fortune mixed with confronting people and events that test my resolve. I will omit my lost weekend with the Norwegian goddess a week removed from now. Let’s just say it involved a trip all the way down to Tirana, two pairs of socks, and a lost bank card… we will leave it there.

Monday 25, September

As of this moment, on Monday morning, I am in the dining hall watching a group load up to head off into a pouring rain. It has turned cooler, and fall will be fleeting as the rain we had dusted the remote peaks with snow. The rule is if it rains down here, it is snowing up there. I leave here a week from tomorrow, 4 October, and I will truly miss everyone here. The next post will entirely cover the staff, Pavlin and Vlora, and my inclusion in this place.

The South end of the gorge from the open floodplain, looking back North up the Shala River into Thethi.

In the end, it has been a wonder-filled trip here to Theth. From stepping onto the bus at Nivy in Bratislava, to Belgrade, the train to Bar Montenegro, and my transportation to this Shangra-la has been nothing short of an Odyssey that continues yet to Tirana next week. The people I have met have been , for the most part, long on kindness and warmth. I am a European now. I have reset my standards of living and desire more than the US could ever offer…better quality of food, less work, less pay, more “being present” in life, and the lives around you. I will post from Tirana, once I have settled into my apartment in Blok. Thank you for following me. Please take care of yourselves, and take car of each other.

“It All Starts At The Head Of The Dragon”

With Prof. Homza in Male Karpaty

6 September/ Bar, Montenegro

Looking back one week to 30/August, I find it hard to believe that I have been able to cram so many events into 7 days. Since I was prepapring to leave Slovakia again, my good friend Martin Homza requested that we spend one more day in the Maly Karpaty. The Maly Karpaty (Small Carpathians) are part of the Carpathian Mountain Range that wrap around Slovakia on the East, over the top on the North, and back down the West side. Martin calls it “The Dragon’s Tail of Europe”. We hiked for nearly 3 1/2 hours mostly up, and then descended into the wooded hamlet of Marianka. Here in Marianka was a parish priest that serves as Martin’s guide and “confessor” as he puts it. Martin would have a few minutes with Father Vlad as I waited outside. We walked through the village as the churchbell rang out, and mas was underway as we stepped in the backdoor and sat on small benches looking into the church. It was a Tuesday evening and the church was 1/2 to 2/3rds full. From what I could see the Baroque interior was inspiring. I told Martin that after visiting these old churches here, I could almost be a Christian again…yes it is that inspirational for me.

Our hike beforehand revealed a great deal that I didn’t know about him, and I shared bits of my life with Martin as well. Of course we discussed Slovak history, but as is usual with us, it never fails to branch off into philosophy, politics, art, and we never miss geography. We discussed my upcoming trip through the Balkans, and shared the excitment of seeing new places. We were now on the far western edge of Bratisalva, and after transferring a bus or two heading back in, we said our goodbyes. Standard kiss on both cheeks and a big hug; “you will enjoy it, my Brother”. His last words echoed in my cranium as I exited my bus at Most SNP, the bus stop on the west side of the old town. Walking through the squares and down the now-familiar narrow streest of the Old Town, I began to realize how exceptionally fortunate I was to have met Martin and the many good friends I have made because of him. I was home on Grosslingova in no time and once inside my apartment, I realized how late it was. I knew the next three dyas ahead of me would be busy, so I showered and climbed into bed.

So dear family, friends and readers, I am now in Bar Montenegro. Let me attempt to draw a short picture of how it unfolded. In my last blog, “An Odyssey Still Unfolding”, I limned out a plan that would add a twist of adventure to this 90 days out. After taking the night bus from Bratisalva to Belgrade on Friday 2 September, I dragged myself to my hotel and stored my packback there since at 8am I was too early for check-in. I walked up and down some the streets in the surrounding area and settled on a coffee house in the shade. The bus trip is something that I will avoid in the future. We arrived at the Hungary/Serbia border around 1am. The lines were massive, and the bus inched forward every 10, 15 minutes or so. By the time we reached the Hungarian border post, it was 2am. We were told to exit the bus, walk into a building to get our passports stamped, and then wait outside as the guards checked the bus. I guess it was standard for these people to take a 10 minute break between buses. A half-hour later they tell us to reboard the bus, and I think were off. Nope, the bus went forward another 100 meters and we stopped again. We creeped up to the Serbian border post at 3:15/20. and eveyone off the bus and into Serbian passport control. I was reminded a second time that the Serbs have no love for the US. Initially when I boarded the bus in Bratislava, our driver, an older gentleman, looked at my passport and said, “Ugh, another American!”. Luckily Vlad had taken the walk to the bus station with me and explained to the man that I wasn’t “that kind of American”. Thank goodness for Vald! Now, at the Serbian border, the nice (seemingly) young female agent looked at my passort and asked why I am coming to Serbia, I told that I am fascinated by the history and I am in transit to Montenegro. She stamped my card like it owed her money. She handed it back to me, no smile or words and yelled for the next in line. Everyone behind me got a smile, thank you, and “welcome to Serbia”. The Serbs have never forgiven the US for bombing the shit out of them in the ’90’s. I was well aware of it, and I am always careful how I announce that I am from the US. I always say that I am from Slovakia, and then if asked I will say that , yes originally from the US. I sat smiling as my waitress brought my coffee, and we had a chat. A lovely young girl who said “welcome”, and added that she was glad I came. Just one cup of coffee changed the whole timbre of my trip

Statue honoring Gavrilo Principe

After finishing a delightful cup of coffee, and an equally wonderful brioche, I sought out a park that was nearby; wifi at the cafe really helped to get a feel for what was around me. There in a well manicured park was a statue to Gavrilo Principe, the man who killed the Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenburg, his wife. This act ignited the fuse that started World War I. While there are a muitltude of factors that led to it, Princip’s action alone sent Austria over the edge; they issued an ultimatum worded carefully and in a manner that Serbia was sunk either way, and so began the mechinations beginning the “war to end all wars”. Serbia is a defiant culture, and they choose to stand out and stand alone on many issues. I pondered this as I walked toward my hotel. After checking in, I took a long hot shower, and took a much-needed nap

Saturday, 3 September was a faint memory as I ate and slept, after the previous long night on the bus. Sunday I went down to the the centrum, and really enjoyed myself. Beograd Fortress was where I spent most of my time. I met an English couple, unfortunateiy (and uncharacteristically) I had to ditch them as they never stopped talking. The exhibits in the fortress are neverending and the history is breathtaking. As with all of the Balkans, the history stretches back past the Greeks in time. I wandered back to my hotel after a super dinner of Serb origin. I was still tired and ragged-out, but decided to pack and be ready for the early (7:30) check-out and dash to the train station. My man at the desk, Marco, had the taxi in front at 7:45 and I was off. As per the Balkans, my driver insisted that my train left from another staion. I kept telling him it was the Main Beograd Station. After I pressed him, he made a few phone calls, we were righted and I was all set with ticket in hand by 8:10.

I sat on the platform smiling to myself, thinking “how about this adventure”. Maybe it is just me, but I wasn’t as impressed by Serbia as everyone else was. Beautiful -yes, growing – yes, and still trying to shake off the “Cold War” past. Some of the buildings were the most unsightly architecture I have ever seen. I was really excited to be moving on. While on the platform, my luck changes again, and I meet Marcel and Max. Both are young men from Germany, and they welcomed me into their cabin for the run down to the coast in Montenegro.

The three of us spent 11 hours talking laughing and eating. Max was the “map-guy”, as he was looking over his forthcoming options. Marcel was already settled into his plans, and was heading back up to Sarajevo. They were a very bright spot on this trip so far. In the cabin next to us were some young travelers and Max jumped back and forth. At times we were all out in the passageway looking for good pictures as we rolled in and out of tunnels. The best pictures belong to the quick, and I wasn’t among them. While talking to them, I was reminded again of the difference between the European youth and those in the US. By and large they are exposed to more of the world than our kids. Max is in his early 20’s and has been to nearly every corner of the continent. Marcel, an engineering apprentice, has done it all by now in his mid-20’s. Cultured, well-mannered, and very worldly, these two guys are surely a blessing. A we got closer to Bar, we couldn’t believe that the time had gone by like the landscape around us…very quickly. We said our good-byes at the station in Bar, and planned to meet today for coffee, or something. I woke up nice and early and went for a swim in the Adriatic. It was a rejuvenation that I needed.

Peering back into yesterday, I had the first day of sheer enjoyment since I walked out of my apartment with Vlad on Friday night. The views were beyond epic, and the company kept me laughing for the whole ride. Both Marcel and Max are intelligent, witty, and very quick of mind. If I don’t get a chance to see them today, I will miss them. They represent the best of the future. As for me, I am heading tomorrow to Shkoder by car. Yep! I’ve rented a car for 60Euros. It is twice the cost for the train/bus to Shkoder. It would be a 3 hour and 15 minute drive if the train is on time, the connection to the bus, and the bus is on time -37euro. By driving, it is 1 hour, and I have places to stop and see. The train goes back up to Podgorica, and then connects to the bus down to Shkoder. So you would go North to go South. I’m adding a slight twist in this adventure. I might give Max a ride if he is still going to Shkoder. As it stands, I will be overnight here in Bar, to Shkoder by car tomorrow, and overnight in Skoder tomorrow night. Thursday, my hotel in Shkoder has already made the arrangemnts for my minibus trip to Theth to see Pavo. I am anxious to not only see what the road-trip will offer, but Shkoder is a gem on the shore of Lake Shkodra (the largest lake in Southern Europe). I will have time to look around in Shkoder before I leave “civilisation” and the mountains of Theth for the rest of September and maybe some of October.

Breakfast, and the Adriatic. Maybe dinner here as well…..

In the end, I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at right now. I had a wonderful breakfast after my swim. Here, the Adriatic sparkles and shimmers, the water is clear and perfect. I hadn’t planned to write such a long post, but I wanted to at least highlight what I’ve experienced. Montenegro feels much different than Serbia, the Montenegrins are very warm, and open. I will post and head back down into the heat, about 29C (82), and take a dip and get some sun. I thank you all for following me, for now I have traveled through the dragon’s tail and I am comfotably nestled in the Balkan Alps…it’s good to be in the mountains again. I have been gifted by each and everyone of you, and I hope you are all well. I will post again on Saturday from Theth, I love you…please take care of yourselves, and each other.