Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Coupla Skopskos and Rodeos

I was looking for some action
but all I found was cigarettes and alcohol
--Oasis, “Cigarettes & Alcohol”

If there’s one thing I now know for sure, it’s this:  it sucks to be an asthmatic in Eastern Europe.  I once read that, in these parts, one is never far from a lit cigarette.  In my experience that couldn’t be more true, as for the past few months it seems like a big, irritating cloud of cigarette smoke has followed me from the north of Russia all the way on down to the Balkan Peninsula.

And it’s not just that everyone smokes; it’s also that everyone smokes everywhere:  in restaurants; on buses; in bars; in coffeehouses; in airports; and even inside the main courthouse in Bulgaria, where I walked in on two ladies taking their cigarette break in the bathroom.  You generally don’t encounter something like that back in the States, and certainly not in fresh-air-obsessed California, from where I hail.

A cigarette-butt receptacle in
the shape of lungs on a Skopje street.
So it’s been something of a shock to the respiratory-system over here.  And worse:  it’s clipped my social-butterfly wings something awful.  Here’s why:

I have something that I call “childhood asthma”—which maybe isn’t an actual medical condition, but what I mean is:  at some point I grew out of the asthma attacks I used to have as a child, and nowadays my prescription inhaler generally collects dust until the rare occasion when someone blows cigarette smoke directly into my face; then I might have to take a puff for two.  Before this trip, in fact, my last inhaler went largely unused and had long since expired, so I had to up the prescription.  Right now I’m carrying two inhalers and each one, according to the label, is good for 200 puffs.

On my very first night abroad—in St. Petersburg, Russia—I got caught in a smoke-filled room and was forced to take Puff Nos. 1 and 2.   It was then that I decided that I must be careful, and to take better care to cordon myself off from smoke-filled situations going forward.  With 24 weeks on the road ahead, the last thing I wanted to do was run out of puffs and find myself in a scene out of Hand That Rocks The Cradle, struggling for breath with my lips turning blue in a country where I couldn’t speak the language.  From that day forward I began to keep meticulous track of the “Puffs Taken” in my travel journal, so I’d know when the end for my inhalers was near.

As a consequence, I’ve been completely missing out on the bar scene.  Smoking in bars is widely banned back home, but the same isn’t true here, and even when the law does formally prohibit it, most people choose just to break the law.  So I’ve stayed in while others have gone out, and sometimes that makes me feel bad.  I’m recalling one scene in particular from L’viv, Ukraine:  it was 10:00 p.m., and my lively Italian roommate was just headed out for the night in search of a bar and, presumably, some action.  Meanwhile, I had already brushed my teeth and was curled up in my bunk with a book about the Cambodian genocide.  I realized then that there was something seriously wrong with that picture, but still, I woke up in the morning with another potentially fun night having passed me by.

Then, in Bulgaria, things got worse.  For almost two weeks I stayed in a hostel that also owned a bar down the street, and every night our host would come around and pass out coupons for free drinks at the bar.  Each night I would take one, thinking, I really should go.  But I knew the bar would be filled with chain-smokers, so I struggled over what to do.

Now, before I go on, let me pause and say a contextual word about my own drinking habits.  When asked, I always say “I’m not really a drinker,” meaning—apart from the occasional glass of wine—you generally won’t find me with a drink in my hand.  I realized long ago—perhaps somewhere in the middle of a keg stand back at the college frat house—that I really don’t like the taste of beer, or most kinds of alcohol for that matter, so generally I'd rather hang out in coffee shops or movie theaters as opposed to bars.

I never did go to the bar in Sofia--where the party was always happening--and I've come to regret that because I feel I missed out some good, fun times.  So the other day I got to thinking.  I checked my journal and saw that—because I’d been so careful—I’d barely used any puffs from my inhaler, and with only eight weeks left of the journey, I had lots of room to move.  I decided it was high time that I hit a bar, and give beer another try.  And while I was at it, I planned to take up smoking, so I could really fit in with the crowd.  I know it seems crazy, but that’s what life on the road will do.

Earlier in the week here I spotted an extra lighter in the common room and last night I filched it on my way out the door for my evening stroll near the lake.  On the way back around, I found a convenience store and stepped in for a pack of smokes, feeling like the cool kid in school.  I stood for a few seconds considering the choices on the rack above when the clerk, an older gentleman who spoke English, asked, “What kind do you smoke?”

I really hadn’t prepared for such a question, so I just answered honestly.  “Actually, I don’t smoke, but I’m looking to start tonight—what do you recommend?”  He looked at me, seemingly dumbfounded that a 40-year-old woman from America had chosen this night on the shores of Lake Ohrid to pick up smoking.

I broke the silence.  “What kind do you smoke?” I asked, in return, knowing he must smoke, because everyone here smokes.  He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and showed me.  “I smoke these,” he said, pointing to the word “BOSS” emblazoned on the front. 

“Are they Macedonian?” I asked, thinking if I could smoke a local cigarette, perhaps I could ratchet this nutty experience into a touristy one as well.  His weren’t Macedonian, but he pointed me to a brand that was, called “Rodeo.”  I saw that there were a few kinds:  silver, blue, and gold.  I didn’t know the difference, so I just picked the blue, and paid the man his 65 denars.  That’s $1.51 per pack—totally cheap in comparison to home—and probably another reason why everyone here smokes.

I headed down to a bar called Stils Caffé on the main strip, took a seat outside, and ordered a bottle of Skopsko—the local Macedonian beer.  The waitress brought it to me with a glass; I poured it in and fished the lighter from my bag while I waited for the head to subside.  I felt a little nervous—almost in a ridiculous, child-like way—but I was also excited to finally be part of the in-crowd.

It took a couple flicks of the lighter to get the first cigarette fully lit, but eventually I managed it, and was able to take my first long drag.  Immediately my head went light, and my hands started to shake a bit.  Must be the nicotine, I thought, now thoroughly amused with myself.  An asthmatic; smoking.

By this time, a group sat down at the next table; all smokers, of course, and Rodeo Blues to boot, I noticed.  I sat, drinking my beer and smoking my cigarette, while one guy, reminiscent of a young Dom Deluise, stood up from the table and began wildly gesticulating some story in Macedonian to his three friends.  They began to laugh hysterically, and the whole scene made me laugh out loud too.  The guy telling the story noticed my interest, and from that time forward included me in his range of vision as he kept on spinning his humorous tales for everyone in earshot.  And just like that, my social life in Macedonia turned around.  Of course, I didn’t understand a word of what was said, but no matter—I was smoking and drinking and hanging out, just like everyone else.

I ordered a second beer and lit up another cigarette, but by the time I took the second drag off that one, I felt faint and worried that if I kept on, eventually I wouldn’t be able to get up from the table.  I snuffed the cigarette out in the ashtray and finished the beer.  I was now half in the bag from just the two, pathetically, and decided it was time for the bill.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t feeling the effects of the smoking in my lungs, but in my heart I knew, it was time to kick my short-lived smoking habit cold turkey, and for good.  I got up to leave and offered one of the girls in the group the remainder of my pack, saying, “You can have these; I’ve decided to quit.”  For some reason, this made everyone laugh.  I laughed too, feeling like the life of the party again, even if for a fleeting moment.

I don't know if it's really true, but I once heard that when a smoker quits—as I have—any damage done over the period of time smoked can be completely reversed over that same period of time not smoking.   So, in other words, if a person had smoked for three years, and then stays quit for three years, his lungs would essentially be back to their pre-smoking condition.

Last night I got to the bar around 9:00 p.m. and was home by 10:30, so I figure, under the above theory, by midnight my lungs were back to their original condition.  But I wanted to be sure, so this morning I gave them a couple huffs off the inhaler and, for good measure, took them for a long, tranquil walk near the lake for some fresh air.  This also gave me time to think about all the fun I’d had in my life without Skopskos and Rodeos in the mix.  There had been lots of good times, I thought, feeling content and fortunate to be breathing in the new spring air, sober and smoke-free.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiuof Was Here

“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”
--Mother Teresa

I don’t know about you, but I spent the longest time utterly confused about Mother Teresa.  I mean, I knew she lived to serve others—something that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize—but when it came to the particulars, things were fuzzy.  I would hear her referred to as “Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” but then I would look at her picture and wonder, is she Indian?  She didn’t really look like it to me, and I just never knew what the deal was.

Then last year, as I approached 40, I got off on a “what-the-hell-am-I-going-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life?” kick, which in turn led me into a brief but intense obsession with none other than Mother Teresa.  This included several trips to the Manhattan Beach Public Library, a careful reading of Mother Teresa’s book, A Simple Path, and a couple of long weekends spent reflecting on the relative next-to-nothing contributions I’d made to the world thus far.

It was during this time that I learned that Mother Teresa is from these parts.  She was born in Skopje, Macedonia, and was then-named Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiuof (which is also a bit confusing for the ignorant, because to me that sounds kind of Chinese).   I’ve since been told that her given name is of Turkish-Albanian origin, and that Gonxha means “rosebud” or “small flower.”

Statue of Mother Teresa in Skopje.
I also learned how Mother Teresa ended up in India, which I’ll briefly recount here for those who, like me, never knew.  After she left Skopje at 18, then-Agnes joined the Sisters of Loreto convent in Ireland, where she trained as a novice and eventually became a nun under the name Sister Teresa.  Meanwhile, she was sent to India where she lived in a convent and taught, among other things, geography, in a nearby schoolhouse.  Eventually she was appointed the school’s headmistress. 

Then, at 36, on a train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa received what she called “a call within a call.”  She was told to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them.  And that she did.  Long story short, she got the go-ahead from the Vatican, packed it all in (save for a couple of saris, a pair of sandals, and a bucket for washing), and went to live in the Calcutta slums to minister to “the poorest of the poor.”  Soon she founded the Missionaries of Charity, opened a “Home for the Dying,” and spent her time caring for others until her own death in 1997.  By that time, her ideas and good works had spread throughout the world—to approximately 600 missions in 123 countries—including the founding of hospices, orphanages, schools, and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis.

Some people say negative things about Mother Teresa—primarily relating to her stance on certain social issues, or times when she had some doubt—but if there’s one thing everyone must acknowledge, it’s this:  here was a woman who didn’t just talk the talk; she walked the walk, in that one pair of sandals, right down in the slums alongside the poor and wretched.  She saw people lying in the street, dying, with no one else in the world to care for them, and she did what should have been done:  she built a home for them, took them off the street, and touched them with caring hands so, at the very least, they wouldn’t have to die alone and without dignity.  From all that I read about her work on the ground, the woman was a living saint as far as I'm concerned, and even if you told me on good authority that Mother Teresa spent her evenings getting drunk and swinging half-naked from chandeliers, my high opinion of her would not be altered one iota.

Last week I went to the place in Skopje where Mother Teresa once lived.  The actual house in which she grew up no longer stands on account of the 1963 earthquake.   All that is left is a patch of grass—surrounded by shopping malls—with a small memorial plaque telling us that this is the place where Mother Teresa kicked around as a child.  The patch has a metal barrier, but I found a place where I could walk on the edge of the grass, thinking, in a sense, that I was following in Mother Teresa’s footsteps.

Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about that very thing lately.  I wonder what I would do were I to get a similar Call From Above one day.  Would I be able to do what Mother Teresa did? 

In some ways, I’m kind of partway there now:  I try to help out where I can, I’m pretty touchy-feely, even with strangers, and—in reference to the quote above—most times I walk around the world wearing a warm smile.  I’m down to two pairs of pants in my backpack, and the rest of my stuff is sort of half-forgotten in a tiny storage unit half a world away.  At this point it wouldn’t take much to ditch everything and head off to Calcutta, though—I must admit—I would sorely miss my neon-pink I-Shuffle, currently dedicated solely to Michael Jackson songs.  Sometimes it's been the only thing that can get me going in the morning.

The fact is, right about now I would welcome the kind of specific direction Mother Teresa got when she was almost my age.  But I must tell the truth—I would be pretty bummed if God told me to go live in a slum in India for the rest of my life.  I imagine I’d find myself bargaining over that one.  I really want to help, God, but would you instead consider something in the way of, let’s say, public-school teaching in Florida?

Personally, I think that would be a pretty good compromise.  Being a graduate of Florida’s public school system myself, I know for a fact they could use the help from someone who’s since learned a thing or two.  Plus, with all the world-traveling under my belt—that I’ve come through safely, thanks be to God—I could easily teach geography, just like Mother Teresa did.  

Thus far, though, things have been largely silent in the Call From Above department.  So, for now, I count my blessings and try to live the best way I know how, pending further instructions.

Back in Skopje I also visited the Mother Teresa Memorial House in the city center’s Plaza Macedonia.  At the end of the tour, I sat for a time with the visitor’s guest book, first looking at the other comments and then trying to come up with my own.  I mean, what do you say about a person like Mother Teresa?  (A lot of people wrote things like, “I love you, Mother Teresa” or, simply, “Thank you,” but—being a budding writer and all—I wanted to say something more.)  I thought about what I liked about Mother Teresa’s story the most, and then wrote this:  “The world could use a lot more people like you, Mother Teresa.  Thanks for the example.”  I know--pretty lame--but God knows there are times when I don’t work well under pressure.

Dove sculpture at Mother Teresa Memorial House.
I think the thinking behind my words was this:  if we were all to give more and take less—both in terms of ourselves and our possessions—maybe we’d be living in a world different from the one Mother Teresa knew; one where the sick and elderly don’t die in the street, or where abandoned kids don’t languish in orphanages.  And while there will always be suffering, I'm sure, perhaps the effort to relieve it could be spread more evenly, so as to give the overworked Mother Teresas of the world a much-needed break. 

And when that day comes, I highly recommend a long stroll around Lake Ohrid, where today both the heavens and the sun are shining down on me.  I’m now sitting on the water’s edge, having a cappuccino, and wondering if Mother Teresa ever got the chance to groove to a song like Billie Jean.  I hope so.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sleepless in Skopje

“Hey everybody, I'm on no sleep; no sleep!”
--Jerry Seinfeld
Seinfeld, Season 8, Episode 8, “The Chicken Roaster”

I had my Mother-Teresa post in the queue for today, but after what happened last night, I couldn’t form the kind of coherent thoughts necessary to finish it off properly.  Instead I’ve decided to write a rambling report on the horrible episode of sleepus interruptus I just encountered.  I just hope I can put the sentences together—that’s how big of a fog I’m in today as a result.

Before I dive in, let me say this.  No one ever said hostel living is easy.  It definitely has its drawbacks from time to time.  In fact, throughout this journey I’ve been tucking away some anecdotes for later inclusion in a round-up post of hostel-nightmare situations.  I've tentatively called it, Strangers in the Night.

Tonight's dinner:  Tavce Gravce, a Macedonian bean dish.
I can put up with a lot when it comes to hostel living because, really, it’s the best deal around for a solo traveler.  My current hostel, for example, is about $11 per night, and that includes a substantial breakfast and a home-cooked Macedonian meal in the evening.  I enjoy the camaraderie and fun in meeting and getting to know other travelers and, in general, I find there’s really not all that much to complain about.

But then there was last night.

I had been sharing my 6-bed room with one other guy—the French one mentioned in the previous post—when a reserved, middle-aged man turned up late in the evening and was given a bed in the bunk adjacent to my mine.  He put his bags down, made up his bed, and left the room without saying a word.  A little odd, but fine.

Later, I was lounging on my bed, watching the latest episode of The Daily Show online, when the new guy reentered the room to turn in for the night.  Before I even knew what was happening, he had stripped down to his skivvies, and the next thing I knew, all I could see from where I sat on my bottom bunk was his fat, hairy belly hanging over his tighty-whities, coming my way.  I quickly turned my head as he scrambled up the ladder to his top bunk, half-naked not two feet from me.  It was definitely a sight I could have lived without, but what could I do? 

I went back to enjoying John Stewart’s interview with Richard Lewis when, seconds later, some thunderous noises started seeping into my ears right past my earbuds.  This guy had apparently fallen asleep immediately after hitting the pillow, and commenced to snoring up a storm. 

Of course, after staying in dozens of hostels, this was not the first time I’ve shared a room with a snorer.  In fact, I sometimes snore a little myself (lightly, or so I’ve been told), so naturally I don’t fault other people for something over which they have little control.  I’m particularly fortunate in the shared-hostel department because I can sleep through just about anything (including, once, an actual hurricane, in Florida).  I also pack high-decibel canceling earplugs for backup.

I managed to fall asleep through the initial snoring, but it wasn’t long before I awoke to something the likes of which I have never before heard in all my life.  In short, it was a cacophonous mix of pig snorts, cartoon whistles, wild animal grunts, and wheezes, with the occasional lawnmower-start thrown in every now and again.  For a minute I thought I was dreaming—the noises were so over-the-top and out of this world. 

The bigger problem was the volume.  This is a small room and the guy was lying no more than four feet from me.  Imagine the loudest snorer you know, and then multiply the sound by about fifty.  That’s how loud this snoring was.  My earplugs were useless against the onslaught.

For a while I just lay in disbelief, listening.  Every so often the horrible noise would stop, and for a few teasing moments I thought it might be the end.  But then it would start right up again, and sometimes even louder than before.

Soon my head was pounding with extreme irritation.  I want to kill this guy, I thought, colloquially-speaking, of course.  And I wasn’t the only one apparently.  The French guy had been tossing and turning in his bed as well, and every so often he would emit a frustrated sigh followed by angry mumbling; some foreign profanities perhaps.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore.  I collected my pillow, blanket, and laptop and retreated to the common room for some peace.  I shut the door to the room and also the door at the end of the quite-lengthy hallway that separates the dorm room from the common room.  I took up residence on the couch, which unfortunately was quite hard and too short for getting good sleep.  And worse:  even with all the distance and door-shutting, I could still hear the guy sawing away.

The uncomfortable couch in the common room.

Now, before I go on, I just want to say that I’m not the murdering kind, and certainly I would never kill anyone over snoring.   I am, however, a curious person, and once I get to wondering about something, I can’t sleep (literally) until I look up the answer.  So I opened my computer and typed the question I was thinking in my head into Google:

Do people ever get killed over snoring? 

Sure enough, an article from The Huffington Post popped up, entitled “College Student Says He Killed Roommate Over Snoring.”  The story, out of Beijing, began: “Chinese college student fed up with his roommate’s snoring, has confessed to stabbing him to death in the middle of the night.”  That’s terrible, I thought, as I scrolled down to check out the comments beneath the article.

Some anonymous person had asked, “Ever heard of ear plugs, dude?” to which, further up the chain, someone responded, “Earplugs are useless against loud snoring!  But, a CPAP machine would be much better than murder.” 

Well, obviously. 

Another commenter inquired, “Did the kid think he was John Wesley Hardin?”  I didn’t get the reference, because I didn’t know who John Wesley Hardin is, or was.  But since I was up, I figured now was as good a time as any to find out.  According to Wikipedia, John Wesley Hardin was an outlaw and gunfighter of the American Old West, who went to prison in 1878 for killing a bunch of people.  One of these people, it is said, was a stranger who was keeping Hardin up with his snoring in the next room at the American House Hotel.  Hardin supposedly fired shots through the bedroom wall and silenced the snoring man for good.

The wee hours of the morning rolled on, and I continued to pass the time with more general articles about snoring: its causes; its dangers; its prevention.   I found one particularly relevant article posted on a Canadian-based backpackers’ website called “7 Tips for Sleeping Through Hostel Snoring.”  Of course the use of earplugs was encouraged, as was the consumption of drugs and alcohol for the purpose of sleep inducement.  I had access to neither at the moment.  The article also suggested potential noises one could make to stop a person’s snoring, including clapping, whistling, or—and I’m not making this up—the clicking of the tongue. 

Number 6 on the list of tips was titled, “Roll Them.”  More specifically, it advised:  “If you are comfortable enough touching people you don’t know in their sleep . . . try rolling them on their side.  Apparently snoring is more likely to happen when sleeping on your back.”

I knew my guy was sleeping on his back, but there was no way I was going to go in the room and touch the guy, or click my tongue at him, for that matter.  Just the thought of going near him got me to worrying about the damning internet searches I had performed in the next room.  What if something did happen to this guy—like what if the French guy were to snap, or the man just stopped breathing on his own?  One look at my search history with stories of murderous anti-snoring rampages, and no one would ever believe it wasn’t me.  I swear, I had nothing to do with it!!  I could hear myself yelling, from inside my Macedonia jail cell.

And just to be clear for the strangers reading, I wasn't actually wishing death on the guy.  I just wanted to get some sleep.

I turned off my computer and spent the next hour or so in fitful bouts of half-sleep on the couch.  At one point I realized that things had quieted down in the other room, so I gathered up my things and returned to my bed.  The man was still snoring, but now at a level that earplugs could effectively drown.  I put them in and eventually got some sleep.

I woke up early this morning to the sound of the man zipping his pants.  (Seriously.)  One of my earplugs had fallen out, and now I could hear the man putting his clothes back on and gathering his things.  I peeked over and watched him remove his pillow from its case, and that’s when I let out a big sigh of relief.  In the world of hostel living, I knew that meant he would be checking out.

The French guy doesn’t speak English, but we didn’t need words to commiserate this morning.  Instead we just looked at each other with matching bags and dark circles under our eyes, and shook our heads with disgusted exhaustion.   He left too, and now I have two Korean roommates; both females, both very quiet thus far.  And thank goodness, because now I really need to catch up on some z's.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I Can't Believe My Luck

I’m in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, and am reminded again that disaster can strike anywhere and at any time.  A clock on the Old Railway Station tells when that time came here.  For close to half a century, the clock has been stuck on 5:17 a.m., the precise minute on July 26, 1963, when a devastating earthquake struck, leaving over a thousand people dead, more than three thousand injured, and some 150,000 people homeless.  Nearly 80% of the city was taken out, including the railway station, which has now been converted to a city museum and earthquake memorial.

I read that the people of then-Yugoslavia considered abandoning the city outright.  Just forget it and move elsewhere, some people thought.  But in the end they decided to stay and rebuild—and I’m glad—because I’ve really been digging Skopje’s mix of old and new, including the Bit Bazaar in the Turkish part of town, and the newer Ramstore Mall, where I’ve been going for my daily cappuccino and to write. 

Interestingly, I read that Skopje held an international design competition for the rebuilding of the city center in which renowned Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange, took the top prize.  Of course, that reminded me again of the sad events in Japan, and of all the other tragic and scary things happening in the world today.  I must admit, recent happenings have left me feeling unsettled as of late.  I can't help but think—what if something bad happens here?  what if terror strikes?  will calamity find me in the wrong place at the wrong time?  They say that the Balkans are the “powder keg” of Europe.  Could something break loose here?  Who can say.

Macedonian police at the ready.
I know this sounds a bit self-centered.  I think it goes without saying that my heart goes out to those in despair, but I'll say it anyway:  my heart goes out to those in despair.  Still, for someone traveling alone in today's world, I think these are valid questions.   The fact of the matter is, if something were to happen, I’d have only strangers to depend on in a crisis.  Could I count on them for assistance? My experience and the things I see on television tell me yes, but I won't know until the time comes for me to ask.  (Which reminds me, I really should look up how to say "help" in Macedonian.)

I'm sure all the bad stuff I see on the news is the reason my natural penchant for worry has reached this fever pitch.  For a few weeks now I’ve been feeling like something bad is bound to happen to me on the road; like it’s just a matter of time.  In fact, just yesterday a dear friend sent me an email out of the blue, telling me to be careful.  “Come back in one piece,” he said.  I got his email right in the middle of writing this post, and thought, What does he know?  Did he have a dream or something?

The thing is, I have now traveled through fifty-plus countries solo, and I’ve yet to be struck by travel disaster.  No pickpockets; no scams; nothing of significance lost; nothing ever stolen.  I’ve never needed serious medical attention; never had to grease a palm or talk my way out of a bribe; never had to scream for help in any language.  I know I shouldn’t be counting my blessings aloud, because surely I’m just inviting the jinx my way, but it is this track record of good fortune that’s been making me fear what must lie around the corner.

It’s not like I’m imagining stuff either.  Things are constantly happening to others around me.  Take some of my fellow travelers on this trip, for example.   One night I had dinner with a friend-of-a-friend who happened to be traveling in Ukraine at the same time.  The next day she lost her purse with everything important in it—passport, money, credit cards; everything.  My movie companion from the other night had to cut his trip short due to an “infection of the large intestine” (his description) that landed him in the hospital for a night.  An Argentine backpacker from my hostel in Krakow had just fallen victim to an expensive-beer scam that set him back 100 € when he thought he was spending 9 €.  And the list goes on. 

To be sure, these examples are relatively small things which weren’t the end of the world.  My new friend from Nevada had a temporary passport within days, and family to wire her money.  My British friend with the intestinal problem flew home to universal health care, knowing that he can always ski in Bulgaria another time.  And while my Argentine friend was still pretty angry over losing the money, he was able to chalk it up to experience and move on.

Scary space heater in my room.
But for some travelers, the end of the world does come.  I remember traveling in Punta Arenas, Chile in the same week that a fire burned down a hostel, sadly killing 13 people.  I had stayed in another hostel down the street, and knew it could just have easily been me.  I thought of this last night when I flipped on the space heater in my dorm room.  I’m always careful not to knock it over, but who knows about the French guy in the next bed who keeps going out for a cigarette.

Could I be hit by this Macedonian bus?
Sometimes I check the State Department’s website for potential dangers lurking in regions where I travel.  Once, a few years back, I clicked on a random tab and discovered a publication entitled “Death of U.S. Citizens Abroad by Non-Natural Causes.”  I spent the next few hours paralyzed by fear, reading all the ways other people had died abroad.  I've since checked it again for Macedonia.  It says three U.S. citizens died in the past three years; one was “drug-related,” the other two auto accidents.  The latter doesn’t surprise me, considering the drivers here aren't the most strict adherents to the rules of the road.   So I govern myself accordingly.  Here in Macedonia, I pay close attention when I cross streets, I don't get in cars with crazy cab drivers, and I don’t do drugs.

Recently I confided my fears in some fellow travelers back in Sofia.  "I'm afraid I’ve been too lucky," I told one long-term backpacker from San Francisco, currently traversing Europe by motorcycle.  “Maybe you’re just smarter than other travelers,” he speculated, in response. 

Maybe so.  I do have some pretty good wits, I think, and I try to keep them about me at all times, especially in places like Johannesburg, or Cairo during Ramadan.  Also, I suppose the natural paranoia helps some.  I’m constantly looking to see who's walking behind me, eyeing suspicious characters, and concocting wild backstories for people whose questions seem a little too uncomfortably-pointed.  No, I'm not traveling alone; I'm with my husband.  He's a Sumo wrestler.  Where is he?  Oh, he's at practice right now, for a local competition in town.

And don’t get me wrong—I’m not asking for trouble.  I’m perfectly happy remaining unmolested and problem-free.   It’s just that, if this is a numbers game, I think it's only natural to fear that my number's coming up soon.  But you’re right, I shouldn’t think this way.  I’m sure everything will continue to run smoothly, and sooner than we all know it, I’ll be back home, in one piece.

But before I close, I want to say one more thing, just in case.   For me, the joy travel brings is worth the risk, so don't feel bad if something does happen.  Sure, sometimes it’s a slog and a hassle, but for the most part, I love it.  I mean, how else am I going to get a personal audience with the Delphic Oracle in Greece?  I could use a little prophecy right about now and, in fact, have already prepared questions.  Here's the first one:  Dear Oracle, Will my book be finished/published/on Oprah?  And the list goes on from there.  I can't wait to get the answers.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mace-where? A Quick Geography Lesson on Former Yugoslavia

For years I’ve been working on an article concerning the complex and surprisingly hostile relationship between American and Canadian backpackers.  The Ugly Canadians is its working title, and it’s based on some unpleasant run-ins I’ve had throughout my travels with some of our so-called friends to the north.  Sometimes I say forget it; maybe I’m just letting some bad apples spoil the bunch.  But then I cross paths with another loudmouth, America-bashing Canadian, and it opens up the wounds all over again.

The most recent encounter was in my hostel in Warsaw.  A Canadian kid from somewhere in Ontario turned up one evening and joined a discussion in progress in the common room.  A few countries were represented, including Australia, America, Poland, and now Canada.  We made our new round of introductions and it wasn’t too long before this Canadian guy started spouting off about America—right in front of me—talking smack about how dumb we are, particularly in the geography department.  I can’t remember now the precise insults, but he definitely mentioned Jerry Springer and something about Americans not being able to tell their asses from holes in the ground.  “Most of you can’t even locate the countries you invade on a map,” he said, or something to that effect.

A McDonald's-loving Canadian
backpacker in Lima airport
sporting his Maple Leaf.
I was steaming mad, of course, and tried to say a thing or two in our defense without using a string of profanities.  (I thought that would have been too Jerry-Springer like; just what he would expect.)  But each time I tried to speak, this Canadian clown would talk over me and get progressively more obnoxious.  At one point, my little Australian friend joined in the ribbing, and that just about broke my heart.  I don’t like confrontation, especially in my living space, and I was also tired, so eventually I just retreated to my dorm room.  But the whole thing left me completely aggravated and to this day I think, the nerve of that guy.

I was thinking about that Canadian this morning when I was looking at a map to figure out an itinerary over the next weeks.  And now that he’s well out of earshot (hopefully freezing his ass off somewhere back in Ontario), I want to pose a question to my American friends.  Was that guy really that far off base with respect to the geography thing?   I mean, let’s be honest, how many of us can name all the Balkan countries?  I know I couldn’t without the help of Wikipedia, and I’m swinging through them as we speak.  In fact, I looked them up about an hour ago in writing this post, and I think I’ve already forgotten a few.

And when we’re really being honest, isn’t it true that a lot of us couldn’t find Macedonia on a blank map of Europe even if our very lives depended on it?  I mean, right now I’m sitting in Macedonia, and I still have to pull out the map in the front of my journal to figure out where the hell I am in relation to the next country over. 

The new Macedonian flag.
Let’s also be fair though.  The last time a lot of us sat in a geography class, this place was still part of a country formerly known as Yugoslavia.  In fact, it was first admitted to the UN in 1993 under the provisional reference of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, sometimes abbreviated as FYROM.  It is now called The Republic of Macedonia, or just Macedonia, for short; not to be confused with the other Macedonia, which is a region of northern Greece.  

And we thought The Artist Formerly Known As Prince was confusing.

Remember the Yugo?
And now, especially for the Americans reading, here’s a quick-and-dirty political geography lesson regarding the former Yugoslavia.  Beginning in the early 1990s, what was once one country—formally, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—eventually became six, including Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia.  That number rises to seven if you recognize Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, as the United States has.  This, by the way has prompted some Serbians to get in line with certain Canadians in the America-hating department.  Just what I need when I'm in these parts alone.

Okay, lesson over.  Wake up!

I’m sure the newfound independence of all these former Yugoslavian countries is a good thing that made a lot of people happy.  But when it comes to knowing our places around the world, it really hasn’t done Americans any favors.  I mean, we can barely keep up with our own 50 states, let alone their capitals (Missouri?  Jefferson City?) and now we have seven more countries to learn!  Really, between the Final Four and American Idol, who has the time?

Speaking of which, Macedonian Idol is playing in the other room as I write this.  The last contestant sang a Lady Gaga song, and the current one is singing I'm So Excited by the Pointer Sisters.  They sound really good.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

So Long, Sweet Sofia

Traveling the way I do is particularly hard for me, I think, because I get so attached to people and places.  I’m forever coming and going, making new friends and then moving on.  That means I’m always having to say goodbye, and I don’t like it one bit.

It’s going to be especially hard in Sofia, where I’ve made so many sweet connections over the past weeks.  Take the waitresses at The Café Memento on General Gurko Street, as just one example.  I’ve been going to the café each day to drink cappuccino and pound away on my book.  Each time I walk through the door, the waitresses greet me warmly, like they’re genuinely happy to see me back again.  They remember me and even know my usual—a cappuccino classic—which, incidentally, comes with foam on top in the design of a heart.  I took a picture, because I’m sentimental that way. 

Sometimes my new friends at the Café Memento and I get to chatting.  One of the girls told me it is her big dream to visit Los Angeles one day, but she can’t conceive of actually doing it.  For one thing, she doesn’t know anyone there, and plus, she said, her English isn’t too good.  “Well, I didn’t know anyone here,” I pointed out, “and your English is much better than my Bulgarian.”  I assured her that it’s easy to go places, even by yourself, and even when you don’t know the language.  “Save your money, get on a plane, and go; you’ll meet people and make friends,” I told her, from experience. 

I had a selfish motive, too, for encouraging my new friend to follow her dream.  I thought maybe if I could convince her to visit Los Angeles someday, I could then legitimately say something temporary-sounding when I left the café for the last time.  Something like “well, I’ll be seeing you!” or, perhaps, “catch you on the flipside.”  

But I was foiled.  When I got up to leave, my friend spoke up first.  “Goodbye,” she said, and in my heart I knew she was right.  This was goodbye, so I said it too.  But I couldn’t just leave it at that.  I told her that I really hope she makes it to L.A. one day.  Who knows, maybe I’ll run into her walking the stars down Hollywood Boulevard, or cruising up the PCH, or strolling down Rodeo Drive.  But for now we parted ways, and I walked back to the hostel a little dewy-eyed, thinking how much I’ll miss the Café Memento, and my new friends, and Sofia. 

The truth is, my first impression of Sofia was not a good one.  On the bus ride from the airport into the center, all I kept thinking was, what kind of a sh&#hole is this?  I was reacting to the post-communist blight spread over certain parts of the city.  I’ve since discovered that Sofia has a lot of beautiful parts too, with a blend of modernity and antiquity that is both charming and unique.

But the true beauty of Sofia lies in its people, from the friendly women who sell nuts from metal stalls around town, to the helpful couple who stepped up to assist at the post office, to the concerned passengers who made sure I got off the tram at the right stop.  And--last but not least--there are all the wonderful people in my hostel who made Sofia my home away from home.

Everywhere in this city there are people who made me feel welcome; people who made me laugh; and people who will make it hard to say goodbye. So I won’t say goodbye.  Instead I’ll say:  So long, sweet Sofia.   

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Back In Court

Yesterday I dropped in to the main courthouse in Sofia to watch how the wheels of justice turn in these parts.  Sometimes when I’m traveling in far away lands, I get weirdly nostalgic over what I’m trained to do for a living.  I’ll happen upon signs on buildings with names followed by titles like “Advocat” or “Abogado” and think:  I’m an Advocat!  I’m an Abogada!  Soon I’m finding my way into a foreign courthouse.

In fact I’ve stopped by quite a few courthouses during the course of my travels.  In Barrow—a small town high up in Alaska’s North Slope, within the Arctic circle—I once slipped into a courtroom and watched a local resident get his probation revoked.  Public intoxication, I think was the latest charge.  Later I crossed paths with the judge at a convenience store across the road and we had an interesting chat.  I found that exciting, because I’m nerdy that way.  I once clerked for a judge!  (Actually, it was two.)

The next year I observed some judicial proceedings surrounding the Rwandan genocide, first at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, conducted in Arusha, Tanzania, and later in Rwanda itself.  In both places, fellow advocates took me under their wings—a U.N. appointed-defense attorney from Canada in the first instance, and a local Rwandan prosecutor in the second.  For me, these opportunities were like striking gold.

The site of the ICTR in
Arusha, Tanzania
And then there was Madrid.  Things weren’t so easy there.  I turned up in the best outfit I could fish out of my backpack, hoping to look as if I belonged, and strutted through the front door with the confidence of Gloria Allred.  But for some reason, the phalanx of security blocking the metal detector wasn’t buying it.  They spotted turista right away.  “No turistas,” one of them said, brusquely.

It was hot in Madrid that day and it had taken me close to an hour to find the court.  I wasn’t giving up that easily.  I looked the guard straight in the eye, and in my best Spanish, said, “Yo soy abogada de Estados de Unidos.”  And that was all it took.  The guards stood down and shuffled me in like I had just told them I was the Queen.  I spent the rest of the afternoon watching an interesting trial involving a couple caught running drugs from Chile to Spain.  And I learned that male judges in Spain wear black robes with intricate cream-colored lace at the base of their sleeves.  Who knew.

But here in Bulgaria it would be a different story, were I to be called upon to explain myself.  I’ve been here for two more than two weeks now, and haven’t been able to master one Bulgarian word.  I keep trying to say “Hi,” which is Zdrasti, but it keeps coming out sounding like Drats!

The courthouse in Sofia.
So my initial strategy at the courthouse was to follow close behind a man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, and to pretend that I was with him.  It worked all the way through the conveyor belt and metal detector.  I was almost home free when a female security officer put her hand up and said something to me in Bulgarian.  Crap!  I said what I always say:  “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”  Hearing my English, she said, simply, “Passport.”  Turns out she just wanted to see some ID.  I handed my passport over, and seconds later I was loose in the courthouse.

The courthouse in Sofia is, in a word, grand.  Huge vaulted ceilings, ornate friezes, imposing coats of arms, majestic marble-and-wood staircases.  I walked around just marveling for a time, and then went in search of some action.  It was easy.  I just followed a woman who looked stressed out and in a rush.  (I can always recognize my kind.)  Soon I was standing in a long hallway containing many courtroom doors, and crowds of people milling outside them. 

And this is interesting.  Next to each courtroom door was a huge electronic board with what looked to be detailed, up-to-the-minute information on that afternoon’s hearing schedule.  Bulgaria’s courts are high tech apparently.  In L.A. you’re lucky to find a piece of paper hanging up with your case name on it.

I followed the herd into one of the courtrooms with an afternoon calendar scheduled.  I took a seat in the third row and sat watching the lawyers perusing their files, awaiting their turn.  I don’t know why, but I felt nervous for them.  Maybe because I know how hard it is to keep all those facts and case names straight.

Soon three women in black robes entered the courtroom, and we were told to rise.  I’m not sure why there were three judges there initially, but after a couple cases were finished, two of them retreated to the back, never to be seen again.  That left one to handle the remainder of the hearing calendar.

I sat for a while watching some sort of dispute in which witnesses were called and examined by both sets of lawyers and the judge.  I couldn’t understand one word, so I didn’t know what it was about.  It was hard to concentrate, too, with the court reporter banging on her keyboard and chomping on her gum.  Apparently you’re allowed to chew gum in Bulgarian courtrooms.  At least the court reporter in this one was.

I took in the other differences.  Here, the lawyers stood at opposing, wooden podiums (podia?) at the same time, only a few feet before the judge’s bench.  The witness stood between the lawyers in front of his own wooden structure, and would just turn his head from side-to-side while he was questioned.  No witness raised a right hand before offering testimony, so perhaps the Bulgarians don’t swear dramatically to tell the whole truth, and nothing but, the way we do in America. 

And judging from one reaction in the courtroom, it sounded as if one of the witnesses was, in fact, not telling the truth.  At one point the witness’s testimony drew an audible sigh from the gallery.  I turned to see an animated man shaking his head as if to say, “He’s lying, your Honor!”

I followed the parties out after the hearing and approached three young people who had been sitting in my row, figuring they might know English.  (They did.)  I asked if they could tell me what the hearing was about.  It was a civil property dispute, they explained, and I learned that the three are law students in Sofia, and work in the office of one of the lawyers participating in the hearing that day.  

That lawyer also happened to be the father of one of the students.  And a famous one, I was told.  After a few moments, the famous lawyer walked over and introduced himself to me.  We talked for a few minutes, during which time I told him that I, too, am a lawyer; from America.  The group had some more work to do, and we were about to part ways when the famous one invited me to stop by his law office sometime during my visit to Sofia. 

“Of course, I would love to,” I said, taking his card.  Because I’m an advocate too!  And sometimes I just miss hanging out with the club.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sushi in Bulgaria

If up until now you’d been thinking that one couldn’t find good sushi in Bulgaria, I’m here (literally) to tell you:  that simply is not the case.  In fact I got a chance to wrap my lips around some notable sushi in a Sofia restaurant just last week.

But before I launch into my specific critique, I should tell you up front that every sushi dish I consume nowadays suffers by comparison to the best sushi on the planet, which happens to be served in a little sushi bistro tucked away in an otherwise non-descript West Hollywood strip mall.  I won’t say the name here because the cat’s already way out of the bag on this place.  Celebrity A-listers and their entourages can sometimes crowd the non-famous regulars out as it stands now.  I was one such regular when word got out, and soon I was having to call ahead to reserve a spot at the sushi bar, on weeknights no less; that’s how melt-in-your-mouth, fresh, and inventive the sushi there is.    

Obviously I haven’t been to every sushi bar on the planet, so perhaps my crowning of the West-Hollywood sushi place as the world’s best is a bit overstated.  But I have sampled lots of sushi across six different continents—from the northern-most American city in North America—to Japan, where it all began—to the southern continental reach of South Africa.  So I think I have a certain qualification to speak.

Sushi dishes for sale in Tokyo.

In writing this post, in fact, I paused to take a stroll down my global-sushi memory lane.  Here’s a quick snapshot of what I remember from a few select cities:

La Paz, Bolivia:  What can I say?  Nice try.  Good ginger.
Santiago, Chile:  Basic mall sushi; warm, plump shrimp-tempura roll; friendly chefs.
Adelaide, Australia:  Conveyer-belt at the “Sushi Train” too dangerous for a sushi fiend.
Tokyo, Japan:  In a word:  fresh; the 6:00 a.m. sushi “breakfast” at the famed Tsukiji Fish Market’s “inner market” was practically still moving.
Riga, Latvia:  A little fishy-tasting, but not too shabby for the Baltics; good miso soup.
Bergen, Norway:  Creative flavor combinations justified the extraordinary expense.
Jerusalem, Israel:  Totally kosher, both literally and figuratively.

Santiago, Chile

The Sushi Train in Adelaide

The morning's catch at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

The Philly Roll in Riga, Latvia.
Bergen, Norway -- fancy.
Heavenly sushi in Jerusalem.
And then there was Cape Town, South Africa, which, I think, merits its own couple of paragraphs.  The place looked decent enough, on the town’s main drag close to a waterfront reminiscent of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.  And the sign on the door certainly jumped out:  All-You-Can-Eat-Sushi-Buffet, Tuesday, for some incredibly low price.  When Tuesday rolled around I shuffled in, with my budget-backpacker mentality in tow, and spent the next couple of hours gorging myself on salmon and California rolls.

I think we know where this story goes.  I’ve never spent a sicker night in all my travels.  I don’t know if it was some bad crab, or the fact that the sushi had been sitting out, or just the sheer gluttony, but let’s just say that the true victims in all this were the other backpackers I kept up all night with my frequent trips to the bathroom.  Even still, the next day they graciously nursed me back to health with Sprite, crackers, and a good measure of genuine sympathy.  And that’s why travel never fails to bolster my faith in humanity.

Now to the sushi in Sofia.  Acting on a local tip, I settled on a place called Happy Sushi in the center of town.  The ambience was cool and classy, the Japanese-styled waitresses fawning, and the local Bulgarian clientele hip.  A framed certificate on the wall instilled confidence.  The resident chef, it announced, was voted “Best Japanese Cuisine Chef in the Balkans” just last year.

I was ready to taste something delicious, but I must say that the miso soup was a bit of a disappointment right out of the box.  A little too seaweed-y for my taste.  But I didn’t let that pre-judge what was to follow.  I picked two rolls from the seemingly-infinite choices—a couple of my usuals—the Philadelphia and the spicy tuna.  Both rolls exceeded expectations; the flavor, the soft, sticky, rice, the freshness; everything really.  I rounded out the meal with two pieces of sushi salmon, and while it didn’t quite melt like butter, it definitely stood as a welcome and tasty diversion from the cured meats that have been clogging my colon as of late. 

And the best part:  the price.  Along with the green tea and a couple of faux sushi-roll dessert bites, I escaped having spent only 30 Bulgarian leva, or about twenty bucks; cheap at twice the price, I'd say.  In the end, the Happy Sushi in Sofia lived up to its name.