Monday, April 18, 2011

Queen Of The Prizren Castle

Yesterday I took a daytrip to a town in southwest Kosovo called Prizren.  It’s been billed as Kosovo’s prettiest city, with the rolling Lumbardh River running down its center and a famed stone mosque that stands as a reminder of the town’s 14th century Ottoman past. 

The bus from Pristina dropped me off at the Prizren station and from there I walked the kilometer or so into the city center.  I rounded a bend near the river and looked up to see the ruins of an old castle perched atop a hill—a mountain, really—towering over the city.  I could see some movement up there too.  I strained my eyes and realized that the tiny forms moving about were people milling around the castle’s walls.

Damn! I thought.  I quickly looked away and tried to pretend that I never saw the castle.  I didn’t want to have to climb a mountain this afternoon.

The thing is, I woke up feeling tired, and in a mood.  For five nights the smell of burning coal has permeated the room in the guesthouse where I’ve been staying, and I’ve had to choose between sweating in my bed in the hot room with the window shut, or choking on burning-coal smoke.  (I chose to sweat.)  

Also a delight:  the electricity in the guesthouse cuts off without warning, and stays off for hours.  This means:  it’s pitch dark at night save for my little book light, there’s no internet access or television in the meantime, and I have no way to heat water in the kettle for a cup of coffee in the morning.  Also when this happens, a loud generator outside my window begins to whine loudly, keeping me up for no apparent reason, considering the generator doesn’t seem to power anything that would make a difference to me.

Thus began the cranky phase of my trip.  Suddenly every irritation has become magnified. I’m tired of standing under showers that seem to have only two temperatures: freezing and scalding.  I’m tired of squatting over dirty toilets in bus stations.  I’m tired of moving from place to place.  I’m just plain tired, or so it would seem.

And, after 19 weeks on the road, my things are becoming worn out.  Socks:  threadbare; zippers:  broke; bra underwires:  snapped.  Maybe I’m worn out too, I think, feeling a little sorry for myself.

And now, just when everything in my life has been feeling like an uphill climb, did I really need this extra one today?

I tried to ignore the castle and instead walked around town checking things out.  I strolled along the river, poked down side streets, and snapped pictures of things that caught my interest:  newlyweds; an American flag juxtaposed next to one dotted with marijuana plants; Obama graffiti; men streaming into the mosque for afternoon prayers. 

Along the way, the castle always kept me in its view; calling to me, it seemed.  Get up here, you lazy-ass! I imagined it saying.  I sighed a big sigh and knew I had to make the ascent or else I was going to feel like a big loser on the bus ride back to Pristina.  I began to ask passers-by where I might find the trailhead.
Soon I found the footpath to the castle and started up.  Immediately my legs started to burn.  This was a straight-up vertical climb—way steeper than even the steepest hills in San Francisco, in my estimation—and my thoughts were filled with doubt from the very beginning.

Five steps.  There’s no way.  Five more steps.  I can’t do it.  Five more steps.  Damn.  Five more steps.  There’s no way.  And so on.

Finally I climbed halfway and encountered two little boys sitting next to their hillside home, shooting pebbles from a slingshot off the side of the hill.  One kid asked me to watch how far he could send one.  I turned to follow the rock’s trajectory and noticed how high up I was at that point.  I was way up higher than the tallest of the tall buildings in town.  Way higher than the mosque’s minaret.

I couldn’t believe it.

I pressed on with a better attitude, and wouldn’t you know, the climb grew exponentially easier.  I felt an adrenaline rush as I realized: I’m doing this!   It wasn’t long before I reached the top and passed through the stone archway leading to the grounds of the castle’s ruins.  

I’m Queen of the Castle, I declared (silently), as I climbed to the highest point on the castle’s grounds and snapped several photos to memorialize how far I’d come.

I returned to Pristina, still feeling a little tired; still dreaming of a very long, steady-hot shower.   But now I was feeling confident as well; confident that I could push through and enjoy these final weeks away, remembering what I love so much about travel, and knowing that home and the familiar are waiting at the top of the next big proverbial hill.  And, of course, I can take that one too.  With ease.