Face The Sun: Let There Be Light!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are exclusively those of its author, and are not in any way meant to reflect the opinions or policies of the US Government.

Past Travelogues.

Finland, Estonia, Petersburg

Kirovograd, Ukraine


Tirana, Albania

Macedonia & Romania

Budapest to Bucharest

Balkans and Poland.

Christiania, Copenhagen.

Northern Norway

Northern Finland


Kashgar, briefly

More to come, Inshallah, as I go through old paper travel journals.

The DC experience, archived.

July '05
June '05
December '05
October '04
More to come should interesting things happen to me. Ever.

Blatent Plagiarism

The nation's largest chain bookstore has indicated that, due to lack of consumer interest, it has stopped selling books.
--Frederick Raphael, The Glittering Prizes

I feel this is the equivalent of a surgeon, skipping through a radiology department singing, 'I don't have cancer, I don't have cancer!'
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

Mum is crying with her faced turned away from me, gulping and honking like an injured seal. And I'm rolled up in the back seat wishing the old man would stop the car and make her walk. That or buy her a fish.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

I love it when well-educated women sweaar -- the words regain their original power and meaning when delivered unexpectedly with so much poise.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

She lived with her mother, who looked like an old labrador, and an old labrador.
--Will Self, Great Apes

When I was small and would leaf through the Old Testament retold for children and illustrated in engravings by Gustave Dore, I saw the Lord God sitting on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Quality is merely the distribution aspect of Quantity.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

...In the frank brilliance of the bright sun, which, as we all know, is the friend of heroes.
--Jose Saramago, All the Names

He stuttered so badly that you could go out and buy yourself a chocolate bar while he was wrestling with an initial p or b; he would never try to bypass the obstacle by switching to a synonym, and when the explosion finally did occur, it convulsed his whole frame and sprayed the interlocutor with triumphant saliva.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

To Stand on Jericho's Walls and Face the Sun.

Monday, June 28, 2004

23rd of June, 2004: Tirana to Prishtina.

Recall: Kosovo. A speck of land smothered between Albania, Macedonia and Serbia, unidentifiable by most people on an unmarked map. Definition of The Balkans, (capital T, capital B): interethnic tensions, the will for independence and history of war so recent that even Americans, with their short memory span for such things, can remember it.

An oversimplified history in six paragraphs: Kosovo. An island of Albanians swimming in a sea of Slavs, semi-content with 'autonomy' as granted by Serbia in the past and living historically with 25 percent of the income and standard of living of the rest of mother Serbia. Placated by Tito, used by Slobodon Milosevic as a political fulcrum. The term 'Greater Serbia' was a code word for Serb ultranationalism and militarism, a desire to keep in check the rising independence movements in the laundry list of provinces of Serbia: Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Kosovo.

July of 1990: Kosovo's loses her autonomy, Albanian language news media is shutdown, and over 100 thousand Albanians lost jobs to Serbs loyal to Milosevic. Serbia, they say, is for the Serbs.

A referendum: 98 percent of the region vote for independence and no further progress is made. 1996 sees the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the dreaded KLA, would-be freedom fighters unsurprisingly labelled as terrorists by the Serbs. 1998: Serbia attacks central Kosovo, and the Jeshari clan is laid to waste. The world condemns the action, embargoes arms and frowns disapprovingly, while thousands of ethnic Albanians sprint to join the KLA.

1999: The United States brokers a peace plan. Serbia balks and it marks the beginning: ethnic cleansing. Serbia, for the Serbs and only the Serbs. 850,000 Kosovars flood Macedonia and Albania in the face of the armaments of the Former Yugoslavia, bequethed by the lucky fault of geography to Serbia in the aftermath of the Yugoslav collapse. The US and NATO begin their bombing campaign, and 78 days later, the Serbian Army exits Kosovo, stage north. The United Nations, reborn here as UNMIK or the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, takes up camp and dispatches KFOR, the Kosovo Force, to keep the peace.

And so they have.

The fighting in Kosovo largely ended in 1999, with the exception of some reprisal attacks on Serbs. Milosevic was deposed in 2000. It's 2004, and I have decided: it's time to go to Kosovo.

To Kosovo, by bus: I bought the ticket in advance, to be sure of a seat and not being trapped overnight in the surprisingly pricey capital of Albania.

I was expecting a minibus and tortured roads, more like Indonesia than Europe, and buying the ticket brought to mind my first ever long-distance minibus trip. A Brit I met in Singapore, older and far better travelled than I was, had told me: when you ride a minibus in Indonesia, try to sit in the back. That way, you'll have time to slow down a bit before you hit the windshield. He was joking, but I was nwe to the game and young, and it goes without saying that he scared the pants off me. I dutifully sat in the back seat, sandwiched between two muslim girls in identical jilbabs, and tried not to think about what I saw as my imminent, tire-squealing death. The road was curvy and winding hard-packed dirt rutted with tire marks and washed out from heavy rain, littered with the rusty corpses of past minibuses that had flipped while making the drive. The seat in the back was spring-loaded to an excess degree, and every time we hit a bump the muslim girls would fly out of their chairs, slam their heads on the roof, and scream in tandem while I wondered how much exactly I would slow down before windshield impact.

That's what I was expecting from Kosovo.

Instead, I got a standard coach-like bus, and well-paved roads the entire way (at least, that I was awake to witness). UNMIK's done good work, it seems. Unlike going to Albania, there's no chaos whatsoever in the bus-boarding process. I guess it makes sense: there are considerably fewer people tagging up to Kosovo.

My bus has 12 or so other people on it, and all of them are males my age or eldery couples. There's no one in between. The guy a seat across from me has a video camera, and he's filming the scenery as we drive by. I wonder if it's some kind of homecoming for him.

I am struck immediately by how cleanliness-conscious the Kosovars are. Two people apply spray-on deodorant in the course of the bus ride; my deodorant is in my bag, safely stowed under the bus, and since I haven't had a room or a shower in three days, I'm fully conscious of how ungodly horrible I undoubtedly smell.

The guy three seats back from me is carrying a military-style camoflague vest and pants, and it reminds me that I forgot to check the latest news and warnings on Kosovo to see if anything had come up in the last five days that would keep me from coming. It's a foolhardy mistake to have made, and there's a vague feeling of nervousness and unease that starts in the pit of my stomach.

The bus hits Prishtina shortly before 6 a.m., and after three days of back-to-back overnight bus travel with late-night border crossings, I am exhausted. The bus driver has to shake me awake, and I'm the last one off.

We're in the northwest suburbs of Prishtina, and it's eerily quiet. There's a handful of people around, a few soviet-bloc apartment buildings, and nothing else. No traffic, no wind or noise, nothing.

I head for the toilet, but before I get there my eye catches a fountain. Not only is there a functional, decorative fountain in the Prishtina bus station-- a fact that I find surprising enough-- but someone has dumped a box of laundry detergent into it, making it foamy. It's a standard collegiate prank, and it seems completely out of place, incongruously incompatible with a former warzone.

I go to the toilet. The men's side has been shelled (or is under renovation, but this strikes me as unlikely); there is light streaming in through holes in the walls, and there are no toilets or plumbing facilities at all. I stare around at the walls for a few seconds before I remember where I am. The last thing one ever does in a former warzone is poke around in shelled buildings, when unexploded ordinance (and with it, the prospect of losing an arm or a leg) could be anywhere. I remind myself to be more careful, retrace my steps exactly, and use the women's side.

I decide to take the first bus to Prizren, in the south of Kosovo, so I can sleep for an hour or two more on the ride. I'll come back to Prishtina; in Kosovo, all roads lead to Prishtina.

While I'm having a coffee, someone approaches my table and asks in impeccable English: can I sit here? He's wearing green pants, a floral print shirt buttoned halfway, and green-tinted sunglasses that match both. He's a Kosovar fashion designer, living in Italy and home to see his family. I have millions of questions to ask about the war, but don't know how to broach the subject without seeming coarse, or rude, or pushy, or unfeeling; it's not an easy topic to break into. But he didn't come home until 2000, after the fall of Milosevic, so he missed it entirely.

He doesn't believe that I'm a tourist, and asks three times over the course of our conversation: are you SURE you don't have family here?

The bus station speakers crackle, and the Dixie Chicks version of Landslide comes over them. Nothing could seem more out of place. They make it through the first verse before it's replaced with traditional Kosovar music. The fashion designer describes it as 'Balkan Chill-Out Music', and it's got slow opera-like lyrics over fast string accompaniment. I like it. But then, anything's better than Greek techno-pop. Anything.

I arrive in Prizren and sprint for a hotel. I shower. Words can't describe how good the shower is. I towel off, and briefly consider having a second shower.

Prizren: I feel like I've stepped into an Ivo Andric novel. The city is red-tiled roofs and impossibly green mountains, stone bridges over a shallow stream that runs clear over smooth rocks. This is the forgotten part of Europe, but it is undeniably, overwhelmingly European.

I was expecting Kosovo to be like Sarajevo, scarred with inescapable reminders of the war in every direction: marks on pavement where shells fell, teetering outlines of former buildings waiting to be torn down and rebuilt, danger signs everywhere. But the remnants of the war in Kosovo are more subtle. There is barbed wire everywhere; it forms an almost inescapable backdrop to everything in the city. And there are burnt shells of buildings, but they are farther in the distance, set back from the main street.

And KFOR is everywhere. They travel in packs, two, three, four jeeps in caravan, the odd armored Humvee and rear mounted machine gun, and uniforms holding uzis on nearly every corner of the street. Their arm patches indicate their nation of origin: Germany, Austria, Jordan. They are simultaneously inescapable and comforting.

I walk past KFOR headquarters, but they ignore me. No one's in the mood to chat, it seems. Shortly past HQ, I stumble across the ruins of a church, with the remnants of a residence next to it. It's impossible to know if the church was bombed in the fighting, or in the aftermath, during the mass reprisals against Serbs. Albanian Kosovars are Muslims; Serbs are Orthodox Christians, and attacks on churches were common after the fighting. KFOR serves equally to protect the remaining Serbs in Kosovo as they did to act on behalf of the Albanians.

KFOR was renovating the church. There were two trucks outside (one labelled as 'Fire Department' in German), and a gas generator running strong. I tried to poke my head in, but KFOR, unsurprisingly, waved at me to leave.

The area west of the river fared not nearly as well as the east. There are shells of buildings everywhere, wrapped in barbed wire and, five years later, still strongly smelling of ashes. Teams of KFOR staff are moving from building to building, photographing them, and several are annoyed when I step by mistake into their photos. I assume they're cataloguing the damage for rebuilding later on. Of the buildings that have already been rebuilt, all are labelled with name of the benevolent government that gave the money: Project of the German Government, Gift of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

I have lunch at a Turkish restaurant that serves incredible hummus. I have eaten almost nothing besides street-side grilled meat for the past several days, and the change is wonderful. I notice passers-by staring as I eat, and it dawns on me that I'm using my right hand to hold the knife, the left to hold the bread. Right, then: Muslim country. I switch hands so that my left isn't touching any food, but I'm all but crippled on any side but the right, so working a knife with my left borders on impossible. I end up with a considerable amount of hummus on my pants (leaving me to label them as: delicious).

Afterwards I head towards an internet cafe to rectify my failure in looking up any potential danger spots in Kosovo. There were riots in Prizren in early March of this year, and it seems worth checking, just in case. The internet shop informs me they have no service.

I try elsewhere. The kid behind the desk is no older than 12 years old, and he shakes his head when I sit down. He points to the computer, beautifully pantomimes death, and shrugs his shoulders. I get the point, and decide to try one more place. Prizren is overrun with internet cafes, and I'm assuming that at least one of them must be working.

I assume incorrectly. The owner of the next shop informs me in perfect English that there is no functioning internet service anywhere in Kosovo. He advises me to have a coffee and come back.

Three old Kosovars occupy the table next to mine at the cafe. We started talking, and I was again surprised at how well they spoke English. A significant number of people in Prizren do-- more so than in the (comparatively) richer countries of Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia; I assume it's the UN presence.

They ask why I'm here, and much like the fashion designer, don't really believe that I'm a tourist. KFOR screams up the street with sirens blaring, and I ask them how they feel about having the UN here. 'I wish they'd stay for fifty years,' he tells me. As we talk, I struggle to remember: it's ko-SOH-va, and not KOH-so-vo; the first is Albanian, the second is Serb. The old Kosovars have denounced the Serbs (expletives included) more than once during the conversation, and I'd rather not seem like a sympathizer.

They ask where I'm from, and what I do. I tell them I'm from DC, and that I'm currently unemployed. He gives me a knowing smile and says, "It's ok. We won't talk about it." He says something in Albanian, and the other two chuckle. "I was a waiter," I lie, trying to douse the whole CIA thing. "Yes, of course," he says, same smile still plastered on his mouth. So much for that.

We shake hands and they leave. Twenty minutes later I ask for the bill, but the waiter tells me, 'don't worry.' I insist. He tells me that the three Kosovars paid it for me, because I'm American. 'And thanks,' he concludes. I'm embarrased by their generosity.

When I head back to the hotel, the guy behind the reception desk stops me to ask where I'm from. I tell him I'm American. He praises America briefly, and then asks if I can help him get a visa, write him an invitation letter, something. It crushes me to have to explain that there's nothing I can do for him; American visas don't work like that. He says he understand, but the look in his says that he thinks I'm just being lazy, unwilling to help him. I apologize again, and go to bed still feeling guilty.

The next morning, I return to Prishtina. I don't know what I was expecting from the city, but I wasn't expecting... well, nothing. But there's nothing there, almost no city to speak of. I walk the entire length of it, expecting to find something, and only when I ran out of buildings did I realize I'd already passed it.

The entire city is an exercise in soviet-style concrete excess. There are massive apartment buildings, a few hotels catering to international aid workers on per diem (including one with a model Statue of Liberty on the top; she has a crown and torch, but her tablet is blank: it seems that Kosovo already has too many huddled masses yearning to breathe free to ask for more in stone-carved writing), and nothing else.

There is grafitti everywhere. Most of it is in Albanian or Serbian, but there's the odd bit of it in English, saying 'Thank you America' and similar things. Bill Clinton appears as an icon, and there's a store just outside the bus station named after him: the Bill Clinton Marble Tiling Store. I wonder if he knows it's there. There's also a decrepit fun park (complete with another death-trap ferris wheel, although this one looks better than the one in Albania), a modern hospital flanked by wooden shacks that serve as pharmacies, and the odd kiosk selling books or toys or grilled meat.

I don't find the one piece of grafitti that I'm looking for in particular. It's the Serbian cross, with the letter C (the Cyrillic letter S) written in each corner with the left side mirroring the right. C. C. C. C. Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava, or "Only through unity will the Serbs be saved;" the Serbian army is purported to have scrawled it everywhere as they retreated. It's either been erased, or I'm looking in the wrong places.

There's one small tree-lined cafe street, but beyond that the city is empty; the streets are full of cars but few people are walking around. Kiosks owners stare at my backpack, and even though it's the middle of the day, I feel oddly alone, though not unsafe.

I return to the bus station, and buy a ticket to Macedonia.

It would be more direct and more economical to go straight from Prishtina to Belgrade, but customs laws don't allow it; Kosovo doesn't stamp passports, and there is no border between it and Serbia, so to enter Serbia from Prishtina means staying in the country illegally, lacking proof of entry. Apparantly being inside a country's borders is insufficient proof of having actually entered. I backtrack south and tack north on the train.

I share my cabin with a Serbian man who says nothing to me. At 2:30 in the morning, out carriage is invaded by 4 old Serbs who click on the light and begin having a lively discussion (which is to say, 'screaming') about politics. I can pick out words like Kommunizm, Kapitalizm, Jugoslavia, but can't understand anything beyond that. Part of me is curious about what they're saying, but the rest of me is thinking that this conversation can probably wait until the morning. I silently declare jihad on old people everywhere, curl myself into the fetal position and go back to sleep. I am, if nothing else, remarkably compact when folded.

I wake up five minutes outside of Belgrade. The woman across from me is still jabbering in Serb, and after a few minutes I realize that it's just us in the compartment and that she's been talking to me. "I'm sorry?" I say in English. She asks where I'm from, offering Greece and Britain as choices. Even though it's unlikely that she supported Milosevic or has any anti-American sentiments at all, and even though I'm pretty sure that I could take her in a fair fight, I grab the bait and go with London.

I buy a croissant for breakfast, and am surprised (and secretly pleased) to find a hot dog baked into the middle. I head north. I've come to Belgrade to cap off the Kosovo experience, largely to see one single thing: tucked away in a park in the remains of the old citadel above the city is the Serbian National Museum of Military History.

Trust me when I say that few things interest me less than Military Museums. For me, looking at old guns mounted in glass cases with other old guns and, if you're lucky, the odd bullet casing or bayonet, is only slightly more rewarding than looking at, say, centuries old farming equipment. (Visualizing a Visigoth using that particular chunket of stone-on-a-stick to make the soil produce yams (or whatever it was that Visigoths ate) has never exactly buttered my toast). I understand the appeal of military museums, I guess, but they seem to lend themselves mostly to military and ex-military types (both of which I am emphatically not), and people who sprint around with clenched fists, thumb and forefinger extended, shouting 'Pow! Pow! You're totally DEAD, man!'

As stated, they're really not something that turns my crank.

But the Serbian Museum is purported to house the remains of an American Stealth Bomber, shot down during the war, and it seems an apt closure to the Kosovo experience. When I heard about the plane, I immediately pictured a dozen or so bloodthirsty Serbs dancing around the case in a sort of victory pow-wow dance, and while I'm pretty sure it won't actually be like that, I've got the compulsion to check and see, just in case.

I find the museum but can't find the entrance. I can see things poking over the top of the walls-- old Howitzers (which I immediately recast in my mind as 'Whyitzers,' mentally noting to keep my secret love of bad puns hidden from the world) and whatnot, but there's no door anywhere.

A group of Andorran soccer players asks me to take their picture. I fumble with my Pyrenean geography and ask: Are you Basque? He looks at me bizarrely. 'We're football players,' he tells me. I move on.

The museum isn't just modern military history; it starts at approximately the year 1000. I perform a running sprint through rusty sword bits and armor, the odd to-scale model of castles and whatnot, fighting off the inevitable boredom coma that hits me in these sorts of place, before making it to the WWI section. The museum ends at the year 1918. I feel that I have been hoodwinked out of my $1.05 entry fee.

Before I go to get my bags, but the guard informs me that there's one room left, and points to a small annex off the entrance.

I can tell you this: it's downright creepy in there.

The plane chunk, as promised, is there. (Technically, it's from an F-117 fighter plane; I know not nearly enough about military affairs to know if that's a stealth, and it doesn't particularly matter). But that's not the eye-catching part of the display.

In the case on the far wall, they have hung materials taken from American POWs captured during the war. It's standard issue US military gear, and includes the camoflage jacket taken from someone, still with the American flag sewn on the shoulder and the name tag 'Carpenter' above the breast. I wonder to myself if Private Carpenter made it home from the war.

The rest of the stuff is unsurprising, standard-issue GI materials-- chemical light sticks, K-rations, a fragmentation grenade-- but it's overwhelmingly unnerving to look through glass in a museum and see what constitutes another countries spoils from victories in a war with your own home country.

Other cases display arms taken from other countries. One has weapons from the KLA, labelled as confiscated terrorist guns. Another has arms from the Croatian military, cast in an equally bad light. The last case has bright yellow chunks from a cluster bomb that dispenses other, smaller bombs. The sign claims that NATO dropped two of these bombs, illegal by international law, on the southern city of Nish during the war, and also features gruesome photos of passing-by civiliam Serbs in Nish, standing next to bodies streaming blood on the streets. (The international legality of the 'bomblet,' as they're called, depends on whom you ask; international groups like the International Campaign to Ban Landmines is working hard to eliminate them, but largely failing).

I recognize that history is written by the winners. I didn't expect to go into the museum and find sings lauding NATO and the US for keeping Serb ultranationalism and militarism in check. But the whole display feels designed with the explicit purpose of whipping up more anti-American and anti-NATO sentiment than already exists.

Feeling very much like an unwanted outsider, I leave the museum and head back to the train station to purchase my ticket out of Belgrade.

To close on a note not at all cohesive to the rest of this post: I am now back in Romania. After passing briefly by the tomb of Josip Broz Tito (marble, laudatory), I tagged the train to Bucharest, sharing my compartment with a typical Romanian woman (middle aged, ridiculously generous and friendly, and who, despite our almost complete inability to converse, plied me with peaches ("no, that one's too small for you. Take the big one. And take two, you're small") and beer and showed me photographs of her daughter).

Three weeks ago, when I left Bucharest the first time, I was completely comfortable in functional (though not necessarily conversational) Romanian. Now I find that it's been replaced by Greek as my impulse language, leaving me stuttering over simple words like 'where' and 'thank you.'

This much I can tell you: studying Greek is annoying for two reasons. One, it's a complicated language that's not related to anything else, so if you put in the effort to learn it, you can only speak it in one country where it seems like everyone already speaks English anyways. And two, the second anyone spies you with a Greek textbook, they will immediately cackle the line 'It's all greek to me!' and howl like a loon at their own hilariousness.

My visa for Ukraine is being processed, and in the next day or two I will be taking a 30+ hour train from Bucharest to Kiev. Until then, take care and have an excellent day.

Posted by Dakota on 2:42 AM link |

Friday, June 25, 2004

In the department of: God I love this administration.

At a photo session on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Cheney ran into Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. That sparked an exchange about Cheney's ties to Halliburton and the White House's bare-knuckle tactics on judicial nominees.

Helen Dewar and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post: "The exchange ended when Cheney offered some crass advice."

" 'Fuck yourself,' said the man who is a heartbeat from the presidency."

"As it happens, the exchange occurred on the same day the Senate passed legislation described as the 'Defense of Decency Act' by 99 to 1."

Full story is Here.

Posted by Dakota on 12:01 PM link |
How's this for a bizarre thing: the keyboard I'm currently typing on has been saran-wrapped. I wonder if the people in Skopje are chronic projectile vomiters, or maybe have drooling issues.

Regardless, for anyone who might've been worried about me being in Kosovo, have no fear: I'm back in good ol' Macedonia, waiting for my train to the Heart of Darkness. (That's Belgrade, not Jackson, Mississippi).

Posted by Dakota on 11:54 AM link |

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Fascinating. And available for purchase.

Posted by Dakota on 2:05 PM link |
Big bad news vis-a-vis my working for the Department of State.

Specifically: I am still waiting for my clearance. I thought, surely, that my clearance would come through in time for September Calls to ye-olde Diplomat 101 class (A-100, in State-speak). But I've just learned that calls for September are in the process of going out. In short: there is no way that I will be fully cleared in time for the September class.

This is bad for a number of reasons. The first is that I was budgeting to be back in the states in late August. So I'm toast as far as money goes. (Donations: gladly accepted. Paypal them takemetokazakstan@hotmail.com) I might have to get a job teaching English or some such to keep me going. (I've always wanted to speak Turkish; now might be the time to plunk myself down and actually learn it well).

It's also bad because there are rumors flying in the rumor mills that the next class after September-- scheduled for November-- has been cancelled due to overhiring. This might be just a rumor. This might be not true. But then, it might be. And if that's the case, it means no job until JANUARY of next year. Which is a long way off when your savings are dwindling to critical levels.

So then, that's my life in a nutshell. I'm debating whether this is big enough news for a broadcast email. I think it might be.

This whole thing is crushing me. CRUSHING. Crushing.

Posted by Dakota on 11:00 AM link |

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

It's the 22nd of June, 2004, and I'm in the long distance bus-station in Athens, Greece, tucked away in the ugly part of the city behind the train station. If there were any doubt about it, everything about the experience, even before boarding the bus, makes it clear: you are leaving Western Europe. After an idyllic week in the greek isles-- about as close to paradise as I've ever experienced (whitewashed houses, narrow cobblestone streets, feta cheese, banana milkshakes, white sand beaches, black sand beaches, clothing optional beaches, clothing required beaches, 75 degrees and sunny with a light breeze every day), I decided to pack it all in and head to Albania for something different.

And it's chaos before we come close to departure. I arrive 45 minutes in advance on the pretext of securing my seat; I've got an assigned seat number, but that's no guarantee of anything. I keep trying to put my bag under the bus, but the baggage guy keeps waving me towards the driver. The driver keeps waving me towards the waiting room. No one knows what's going on, and everyone around me is screaming in Albanian. Someone taps my shoulder, and says in english: go, weigh your bags. There.

I do. Most people are getting charged a couple euro, but they wave me through and let me go. Baggage boy takes my stuff, but reluctantly, scanning the open space in the cargo bay in front of him before tossing it in indelicately. I've got nothing breakable, but the guy behind me is somewhat disconcerted when his new television is tossed on top of my with nothing to support it.

I keep trying to get on the bus but the guy's still waving me off. He's making an arch symbol with his arms while barking in Greek and Albanian, and I have no idea what he's talking about. Finally he closes the door on everyone and drives forward a dozen yards or so; there's a hoop sort of thing that serves as an entryway, and it's guarded by four ticket-takers as an elaborate mechanism against stowaways. I think to myself: it's going to be a long night.

We board, and it's more chaos. Everyone's got a seat number (I'm 12, conveniently one of the few numbers I know in Greek, but not particularly helpful since everyone on the bus is Albanian), but the seats in the bus aren't numbered. I plunk myself down in a window seat near the front, approximately where twelve might fall. A girl kicks me out and sits down. I ask her where twelve is, and she says in english that there are no numbers: just take what seat you want. I've been hoodwinked out of the window seat, and I'm annoyed.

The bus is oversold; more seat numbers than seats available. There's more screaming in Albanian, with a backlash in Greek. Both languages feel scientifically designed to be excellent to scream in, and no one on the bus is happy.

The Greeks have a lax attitutude towards punctuality, and all timetables have an implied 'ish' after them. When's the ferry coming? Noon (ish). Nonetheless, the bus to Albania is only fifteen minutes late out of the gate, and the driver's making up for it by leaning on the horn and gunning it through red lights. I'm a third-world guy at heart, and I'm feeling right at home.

A brief glance through my guidebook indicates that it's 24 hours from Athens to Tirana, the capital of Albania. I'm praying this isn't true. The combined horror of 24 hours on an overcrowded and uncomfortable bus and the idea of arriving in a strange and vaguely dangerous city with no place to stay at 9 p.m. are a little too much for me. All this is a reminder: normal people don't go to Albania for vacation.

I close my eyes. Three hours later I wake up when the guy next to me nudges me and points to the door. It's midnight, and I think we're stopping for a bathroom break. I'm wrong. The driver points to a boat, waves his hand to imply that I should get on. I'm thinking: there's a boat? Is anyone else surprised by this fact? Where the hell are we?

Suddenly everyone around me looks unfamiliar, and I can't even remember what the guy sitting next to me was wearing-- only that he looks vaguely Albanian, but that description isn't going to narrow it down. I try to pick a mark to follow, to make sure I get back on the bus. I mentally tag the girl in pink-and-purple pants, but she takes off and disappears. The guy on the stretchy-floppy t-shirt is definitely familiar, but he's in and out of the cabin smoking like a chimney and it's too cold on deck for me to follow him. I finally decide on a woman who's at least 90 years old. She may or may not be on my bus, but she's sure as hell not moving from that seat of hers.

I keep looking around the cabin and realize that there are at least three people there wearing pink-and-purple pants. The improbability of that would probably be higher in other parts of the world, but here it's like a mathematical certainty. Khaki pants actually make me the statitistical outlier, but pink-and-purple has never been a good color for me, so I'm sticking with it. Call me old fashioned.

I was expecting a long haul, so I got out my novel and fell into it. In the end the ride lasted 15 minutes, and was so smooth that I didn't even notice the motion, neither of starting nor of stopping. I was snapped out of my trance and ultimately saved from missing the bus by a girl in-- of all things-- khaki pants, who tapped my shoulder and said in english: come. She's got curly blond hair, and even though she's the one who stole my window seat, I'll be thinking of her as my Albanian saviour for the rest of the ride. I thanked her in Greek, because even though I've got a mind for such things, I'm still struggling with the Albanian: Ju Falem Nderit, and I can't make it roll off my tongue.

They click off the lights in the bus (the one I'm sitting under would be suitable for performing surgery under), but turn up the greek techno-love songs, a hellacious genre of music with a thumping back beat and a heavy reliance on accordian. It sets my teeth on edge, but it takes my mind away from the fact that the driver seems overly fond of steering into the lane reserved for oncoming traffic.

I look around and realize that no one looks familiar, at all. I'm wondering if I maybe got on the wrong bus after the boat. I can't find curly hair girl, floppy t-shirt is no where to be seen, and the old women are shrouded in black and all but invisible. It's too late to do anything about it, so I cross my fingers and hope that customs welcomes me to Albania, and not, say, Turkey.

An hour later a woman goes up and yips at the driver in Albanian. I thought she was asking him to turn down the music, but instead he reaches for the dash and clicks off the Air Conditioner. Temperatures within the bus were approaching bearable, and she wanted to put the kibosh on that. The driver gets hot and turns it back on 30 minutes later. A sea of people scream at him: it's too cold! At least, that's what I assume, because I don't speak a word of Albanian. He turns it off.

5 minutes later they yell again: it's too hot! He turns completely around in his chair and takes his hands off the wheel without braking. 'Hot! Cold! Hot! Cold!' he's screaming. I'm staring at the road but decide it's best to close my eyes. The AC comes back on, and he turns back around to steer again, clearly extremely annoyed. I'm relieved.

At 4 in the morning we hit customs, and I'm so reminded of China it's painful. There's no concept of a line, none. People in the front are being reached over by people in the back, who are waving their passports in front of them in an effort to the get the attention of the lone Greek woman manning the booth. It's ugly, and the Greek in Civil Service gets angry and scream at them to back up. No one listens. She starts grabbing passports, scanning them for interpol and stamping them before literally hurling them out of the little window where she's working.

It's freezing cold and I'm exhausted and grumpy. Someone's cell phone goes off and rather than answer it, the guy holds it up so everyone can enjoy the music. It's the Toreador's March from Carmen, and it makes me want to punch him in the face. I'm one of the last to get served. I haven't been in China in 4 years, and I've lost my skills in the department of jostling for space in a line-free world. I had picked an old guy to stand behind because I figured he'd have years of experience in pushing his way through, but I backed the wrong horse. Only curly-haired girl and her family is in line behind me when my passport gets stamped.

We cross into Albania. There's no line at this customs either, but the Albanians are used to this sort of thing and treat it with smiles and what sounds like wry humor. Everyone's in a good mood, because 99 percent of the people on the bus are headed home. I'm waved off into a room in the back to pay my foreigner's entry fee. There's an Albanian woman who speaks German there, playing the role of interpreter for me, and I'm grateful for it. For the umpteenth time on this trip, I wonder what I'd do if I didn't speak any German.

We stop at duty free, but I just want to sleep. I start to doze off as we pull away, but Curly-haired girl loses major points by getting out her cell phone and listening to each individual ring available to decide which one she likes best. I think to myself that she's about to lose that arm of hers, but I manage to doze off.

7 a.m. hits and the sun's coming up. The driver takes that as his cue to crank the Albanian music, but I'm ok since the roads are too bumpy to sleep through any ways. They're only paved about 2/3rds of the time, and the rest is just washed out rocks like sharp, poorly laid cobblestone. We're winding through the mountains, steep drops everywhere, and there's no centerline or guardrail and barely enough room for two cars to pass each other. I have the passing thought that if I'm going to die, I'd at least like a better soundtrack for it.

An hour later we hit a semi-straight patch of road. The driver guns it, looks at his co-pilot and then stands up. The two switch places without bothering to stop the bus, and I'm simultaneously impressed and vaguely sick to my stomach for having seen it happen. I feel like I'm trapped in an antacid commercial. The drivers grin at each other before the one at the wheel steers us back into our lane.

The bus arrives and I have to ask the woman next to me: is this it? It never felt like we hit a city, but rather like the bus had just stopped. She nods her approval. Tirana. And not surprisingly, it's chaos.

Everything about Tirana feels overbearingly much like being back in China, but minus the Asians and my own personal ability with the language. What's killing me most is that I've completely forgotten the Asian art of Jaywalking. Jaywalking is an agreement between driver and pedestrian. I can't tell you how many times I said that in China, but now I can't remember the rules. It comes back slowly: pause on the corner, make eye contact and don't break it, trust them to swerve and don't, for the love of god, make any sudden moves.

I said Skopje was the ugliest capital city in Europe, and I was dead wrong: Tirana absolutely takes the cake. It's 11:30 and the thought flashes through my mind that maybe we're at the wrong bus station, maybe I'm mistaken. I'm thinking that we're in the south of the city, in an area called The Block that was formerly off limits to everyone except high ranking party-members. The rest of the populace wasn't missing much. It looks like we're trapped in the outskirts of Warsaw, but it's not as pleasant as Warsawburbia might be. The buildings are crumpling and mildewed, and I spend 20 minutes trying to cross the street before remembering the fundamentals of jaywalking.

The center of Tirana is Skenderbeg Square, and it's ringed by the most Soviet of Soviet buildings. This is somewhat ironic, since Albania was the only communist country in Europe that really managed to rid itself of the Soviets. In 1961, Stalin was pushing Albania hard to let them build a submarine base. Albania declined, and re-aligned themselves with Mao Zedong and the People's Republic instead.

Maybe that's part of the reason it feels so Chinese. Albania even went through it's own personal Cultural Revolution, in which all the educated and elite of the country were either executed or sent to the fields for 're-education' in the arts of manual labor. It helps to explain the current state of things.

The women here even carry parasols for the sun. I haven't ever seen that outside of mainland China, except in movies set in the early 1900s.

One of the buildings has a Stalinist-Realist mosaic on it, and I'm a sucker for Stalinist Realist art. It's entitled 'Albania!' and it features a woman in flowing white robes hoisting a rifle over her head and leading a group of workers to victory. Exactly what they're triumphing over isn't depicted, and I can't even hazard a guess. The building is theoretically the National Musuem, but it's locked up tight and completely empty inside.

The center of Skenderbeg Square theoretically has a statue of Mr. (Dr?) Skenderbeg, whomever he might've been, complete with a horse and all that. But it's hard to look at anything except the gigantic and extraordinarily ugly ferris-wheel in the middle of the square. It was turning listlessly when I first saw it, but there was and is no one on it. It looks like a deathtrap. I'm curious how much it costs, but I don't even want to go near the damn thing to find out.

I'm sitting on the steps of the Palace of Culture (now a shopping mall), taking notes on Albania, when I'm approached by three guys who want to borrow my pen. I give it to them. One asks me if I speak German, and I say I do. He asks me the standard questions: where are you going, why are you here, whatnot, and a few other things I can't understand. He asks where I'm from, hazarding Berlin as a guess. When I tell him I'm American, he wants to know where I learned my German. 'Because you didn't learn it very well. My german's great. Yours is shit.' I don't like the way the conversation is going.

He asks if I have colleagues in Skopje, and his use of the word 'colleague' throws me. I had mentioned Kosovo earlier, and I remembered what an American guy I met in Bosnia had told me: if you mention Kosovo, they'll assume you're a spy. I deny colleagues, not wanting to get into the whole CIA thing. 'So you're alone,' he says. 'Travelling alone is shit. Why are you doing it? Don't you have any friends? It's SHIT.'

It occurs to me that I'm carrying a backpack that screams 'rob me,' some 600 dollars in US cash and Euro, and I just mentioned to a group of young, thuggish, muscular and almost undoubtedly unemployed Albanian men that I'm travelling alone. I rummage through my bag, find the emergency pack of cigarettes that I keep for diffusing such situations, and share them around. Marlboro Lights are the Friend-Maker, and every independent traveller, smoker or otherwise, should carry them.

We trade cigarette for pen, and I make my excuses ('I have to go now') and depart. I head in the direction of trees, and when I hit the river I realize that I had indeed misoriented myself. I wasn't in the Block when I arrived; I was in the diplomatic quarter. The Block's got a bit (a BIT) more appeal, architechturally speaking, and it's got the ultimate communist-city treat: trees.

The buildings in the Block and throughout the city are painted in oddly vivid colors. The predominant motif is variations on a theme of salmon (ranging from aggresively bright, farm-raised salmon pink to a sort of limpid two-week old, on-sale-at-Safeway dead fish color). Pink is almost always supplemented with yellow, but there's plenty of purple and magenta to go around, as well as the odd bit of mint-chocolate-chip green. It looks a little bit like a government-sponsored chromatographic scheme to fight depression, and I like it.

I walk past what is possibly the ugliest building I've ever seen in my entire life. It's a cone, done in alternating vertical strips of filthy mirrored glass and mildewed stone that looks vaguely like rotting mother-of-pearl. I question what would ever possess an architect to do such a thing. Curious, and in need of a toilet, I go inside, but it's empty except for some sawdust, cast-off wooden crates, and a scowlingly unfriendly Albanian man.

I keep walking and hit a huge park. There are signs all over it in Albanian that I can't read, and I'm considering letting myself in the side gate when I realize that everyone in the park is military and carrying a Kalashnikov. It occurs to me that I'm at the Prime Minister's house, and I'm glad I didn't trespass. I pass by the front gate. The guard looks no more than 18 years old, and when he sees my ruck sack, he smiles broadly and lifts one finger off his assault rifle. I smile back and lift one finger off the strap of my bag in return. It makes me feel oddly welcome in a way that Soviet cast-off armament doesn't usually make me feel.

But by three o'clock I had already seen everything that the guidebooks mention as being worth seeing in Tirana, and I don't feel any pressing need to hurl myself back out in to traffic. I have a coffee, and my bus ticket to Prishtina. It leaves at 6 o'clock-- my third overnight transport in as many days-- and I can't wait to get to my next destination to have the luxury of a shower.

The only thing I haven't seen in the city is the train station, which is noteworthy only because it leads one out of the city. I find that I have Christmas Carols stuck in my head, and I wonder if it's because I'm slightly delirious at the idea that I don't have to live here. It's a relief. I'm glad I stopped off here, but I can't say I know when I'll be coming back, if ever: it's the sort of place that makes you glad you live any where EXCEPT there.

More from me in the next few days.

Thanks to everyone who's written me emails in the past couple weeks; the extreme expense of internet time in Greece kept me off the computers most of the time. I'll get back to you soon, I promise. Until then, have an excellent day.

Posted by Dakota on 8:09 AM link |

Saturday, June 19, 2004

This just in from the Department of State, vis-a-vis my security clearance:

Status has not changed. Still awaiting review.

I mean, could this take ANY longer? Haysus Maria.

Posted by Dakota on 4:47 AM link |

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Expect incommunicado for a few days. I'm up to my ears in Greeks, and believe me when I say: my ears have never been so happy.

In related news, it's not possible that I could've gotten more sunburnt in the course of a single day. At all.

Posted by Dakota on 10:16 AM link |

Monday, June 14, 2004

(By means of warning: there are parts of this post that are similar to/mirror other posts. You've been warned. Skim as necessary).

General Travel Advice:

If any of you are at all considering going to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and getting a haircut, I offer you the following tips: If your barber-- No. If your Macedonian Styling Professional (there we go) smells overwhelmingly of beer, perhaps you should look elsewhere. Furthermore, if there's a European Cup soccer match on television, and there's a television in the establishment wherein your hair will be cut, also consider looking elsewhere.

Despite my incredible Macedonian language skills (hastily looked up 5 minutes before: the words 'here,' 'short,' and 'very'), this wasn't quite the trim I was hoping for.

Specifically, the top is the correct length (albeit cut with some sort of hand-operated manual weed-wacker apparatus), and while he did sort of manage to shave the back and sides like I wanted, he stopped short of taking the razor as far up against my skull as I was hoping, leaving the hair just north of my ears ballooning out in an intensely awkward manner. This wouldn't be too much of a crisis, except that the place where it bows out is considerably farther north on the left hand side than on the right. You'll recall that I dyed my hair in Berlin while slightly under the influence of intoxicatring beverages: sadly, my Macedonian Styling Professional only managed to get rid of most of the blond, and the end result is that I now look vaguely like some sort of lopsided, speckled mushroom. Except, perhaps, not as attractive.

I was considering getting my hair cut in Kosovo, just for kicks. Perhaps I should have waited.

But it could be worse. The poor guy next to me was getting lathered up for a straight-razor shave just as the soccer game came on, and by the time my haircut was finished, his face had long since moved beyond the point of bleeding, into what's more commonly known as 'hemmoraging.' My Styling Professional offered to shave me as well, but I declined.

So then, hello from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Macedonia has an awful lot going for it. Sure, there are the odd pockets of heavily mined areas and a bit of lingering inter-ethnic tension, but beyond that, it's a fantastic little place. At least, outside the capital. Skopje (said capital) is easily one of, if not THE ugliest capital city in all of Europe. Devastated by an earthquake in the early 60's, it's now been rebuilt, but function really took precedence over form for whomever was designing the place. It's an odd mixture of tightly compact yet sprawiling city, with most of the people crammed into enormous soviet-style concrete bunker-apartments. But despite all the huge buildings, there are plenty of abandoned, overgrown empty lots, and pretty much all the shopping is concentrated into strip malls, none of which have any people in them.

Skopje is really an eerily empty city, until you hit the Turkish Market, which is crammed with zillions of stalls selling everything from cast-off scrap metal to the most perfect fruits and vegetables in a perfect pure-competition environment. It's peach season, and having 20 different vendors fighting over me the second I even glanced at a peach (which, in Macedonia, run 75 cents per kilo (2.2 pounds)) is quite a nice dilemma to have.

And the rest of Macedonia is, qutie simply, a really pleasant country to be in. Macedonians, unlike most of their neighbors, have this real joie-de-vivre thing going on. Everyone seems happy, and they smile all the time-- which sounds insignificant, perhaps, but it really makes a difference when you get used to not seeing many people smile. And the countryside is bracingly nice; it's like driving (or rather, taking a rickety clap-trap 1970s bus) through the most perfect farm-scene painting EVER-- red tiled roofs, rolling hills dotted with perfectly spaced olive trees (and the odd industrial manufacturing plant, but those can be overlooked)-- it's unfairly nice.

And like so many other former Yugoslav territories, these people are all about having old people sit outside and grill meat to be sold at roadside stands. And any old person who knows their way around spiced ground-beef-on-a-stick is A-OK with me.

To catch up (for those of you who might've heard these stories, I do apologize; skim as necessary):

Left my parents in Hungary and headed south to Romania on the overnight train. Romania-bound night trains are notorious for theft, so I was sleeping with one eye open (which is to say: passed out cold and most likely snoring like a madman). I woke up when I heard someone jingling my bag (I always strap it to the rack so that it takes a little extra effort to steal it). I sat up, ask what the heck? (That sentenced was sanitized for any children who might be getting this email), and the would be thief jogged out of my compartment.

A few hours later, I realized that my toiletries case, clipped to the outside of my bag, had been stolen. Inside the case: every single one of my spare contact lenses, the case for them, and all my solution. In my eyes: one contact, right hand side. I can deal with having no razor, no deodorant, no toothbrush, but wandering around blind is quite simply a non-option.

I'll admit: I panicked a little bit. But then my train arrived, and I calmed down a bit. Found a place to stay and trotted off to the US Embassy where a fantastically nice consular officer gave me a list of doctors who speak english, including an eye doctor. Once I found out the base curvature of my eye, they were willing to sell me three months worth of contacts, and everything was ok.

So then, Romania.

There is, in short, no more interesting country in Europe than Romania, at least from a recent-history point of view. And Bucharest is like no other Capital in Europe: it feels considerably more like Jakarta than it does like, say, Paris. It's huge and packed with hideous concrete-block buildings, and it's hot and dusty and packed to the gills with people, all of whom are going some place, rushing there, the streets are packed with cars that aim for pedestrians and the sidewalks double as parking lots so there's no place to walk and there are street dogs and street dogs and street dogs, everywhere, and everyone's a huckster out to make a buck and everyone's hardened against the hucksters, and the whole thing is constantly in motion and everything about it is wonderful.

Wonderful. I could never live there. Chaotic doesn't even begin to describe it. But it really is like no other place I've been in Europe.

Consider: Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania with an iron fist and a psychotic wife for well over thirty years. He joined the communist party because communists had a tendency to get into street fights, and he loved to brawl. By the end, he insisted that every newspaper, every day, print his name at least 44 times. Notoriously short tempered, Ceausescu was on a state trip to Africa in 1977 when an Earthquake hit Bucharest; rather than immediately organize rescue and response efforts, his underlings dawdled over writing the telegram to inform him, fearing that if written poorly so as to indicate in any way a lack of control, it would send the dictator over the top. His son Nicu was a notorious drunk who toed the line between womanizer and state-sponsored rapist; groomed to take over as dictator, he died shortly after the execution of his father of cirrhosis of the liver.

Ceausescu's wife Elena considered herself an intellectual, and newspapers were daily required to mention her under the moniker of 'The World Famous Scientist, Elena Ceausescu,' despite the fact that the highest grade she ever received was a 7 out of 10, in the sixth grade, in sewing class. In charge of the diplomatic corps, she only sent abroad Romanian 'diplomats' who spoke exclusively Romanian, out of fear that they would never come home. Female Romanian newscasters were forbidden to wear jewelry and were in general required to be somewhere between homely and downright ugly, lest they overshadow her own personal beauty. People starved; she wore furs. And while under arrest and on trial, shortly before her execution, she largely refused to speak except for the odd outburst of pure shreiking rage: her captors, she felt, were beneath her.

In Bucharest there exists the world's largest building-- or second largest, depending on how you measure. Commissioned by Ceausescu as a monument to the greatness of the Romanian state, the 'People's Parliament' still exists; it's huge, and it's hideous, but it won't be torn down, because it more or less bankrupted the Romanian government. The Pentagon is technically larger (by footprint, at least)-- a fact which enraged Ceausescu-- but there's a hole in the middle, so that the Palace of the People is larger, by technical default. They're renting it out as international meeting space, but I don't know how many takers they're getting for it.

And of course, Bucharest is the spot where Ceausescu made his last stand, gave his last speech, and was carried away. Civil unrest began in the Transylvanian city of Timisoara, when an ethnically Hungarian priest named Laszlo Tokes was arrested for having too much influence over the people. The tide of unrest carried more or less all the way to Bucharest, and Ceausescu, oblivious to the last, gave his last speech secure in the comfortable blindness that absolute authority imparts with the intent of condemning the unrest in Transylvania; but halfway through the speech the crowds started chanted, 'TI-MI-SOA-RA, TI-MI-SOA-RA!' and despite his commands to them of 'Shut up! Sit down and shut up!', the same words used to chide school children, they wouldn't shut up: they ripped apart their signs and banners and went berserk. And Securitate, the dreaded securitate, the state secret police of Romania who employed one out of every four Romanians as an informer in their overbearingly perfect intelligence ring, turned their guns on the people. And the state television filmed every second of it. And the people stormed the building where Ceausescu stood, and liberated the television cameras and took control of the media, and a few weeks later, Palace Square where the speech had occured was renamed as Revolution Square.

But Ceausescu saw the rising unrest and turned to flee the building as the crowds started storming the doors. And as the people reached the roof, he entered a helicoptor and took off, despite people hanging on to his helicoptor. But Securitate turned against him, and he was arrested, tried by a show-trial by his peers-- enraged after thirty years of the most brutal oppression-- and he was executed on national television. Despite all the horrors of the communist regimes, Nicolae Ceausescu was the only dictator to be summarily executed by his people. And the Revolution, as they say, was televised.

In downtown Romania, there now exists a mall. In communist times, there was no mall. Ceausescu himself went on a State visit to America at one point, and was taken to a department store. He kept asking, you did this for me? Just for me? It was inconceivable to him that a store could be filled with TVs and washing machines and everything else that one could imagine, just for the general public; he was convinced to the end of his visit that the store had been built and filled exclusively to impress him. (At one point in his life, Ceausescu became impressed with foreign aircraft. Completely oblivious to the ways of global capitalism, he offered to purchase it, for the price of four plane-loads of apples).

But now Bucharest has a mall, and I went only because of the building it rests in. Huge, like every other building in Bucharest, it was originally designed to be one of four 'palaces of the people,' where every citizen in Bucharest would be required to go, once a day, to eat a meal 'with the people.' Identity cards were to be stamped daily; anyone failing to eat with the people would be fined, or arrested and imprisoned.

Romania. Fascinating.

And then to Transylvania. Where, by sheer luck, I ran into a group of Peace Corps volunteers, on vacation from Ukraine.

This is lucky for a lot of reasons. The first is that I had planned to go to Ukraine to visit a friend of mine, also in the peace corps-- and I had wanted it to be a surprise, to show up on his doorstep and ring the bell, and say 'hello! bet you weren't expecting me.' And the Peace Corps folks in question not only know him, they're now arranging rendezvous, so that every thing will go smoothly more or less with a minimum of effort on my behalf. And it's further lucky for the simple fact that Peace Corps volunteers are, generally speaking, almost invariably Good People, good to travel with, easy to get along with, culturally sensitive, the whole shebang. So rather than bidding them a fond adieu and going to get my visa for Ukraine like I had planned, I tagged along with them, all the way from Transylvania to the black sea coast of Bulgaria.

I can tell you this: Bulgaria is a land of pleasant surprises. I had no idea what to expect, aside from a slavic language that doesn't bother to decline its nouns and cheap prices in general. And it didn't disappoint on either front. But it was also a shockingly nice country filled with shockingly nice people and, after the fairly bland cuisine Romania has to offer, filled with shockingly good food. Pretty much, much like countries that like grilled meat, I'm also A-OK with countries that have a fetish for grated feta cheese, and feta is everywhere in Bulgaria. (And roasted red peppers filled with garlic-feta and topped with garlic-dill cream sauce will always have a soft spot in my heart).

I kept trying to leave the Peace Corps people, but they were far to easy to travel with and incredibly good company to boot, so I ended up tagging along all the way to the Black Sea. But I eventually left and headed to Sofia, which, even for a former communist capital, is a surprisingly nice place: ringed by mountains, studded with trees, pleasant all around.

And then I left for Macedonia, and here we are.

So I suppose that's all there is to report, for now. We'll be in touch.

Posted by Dakota on 12:16 PM link |

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

This just in from the Department of State, vis-a-vis my security clearance:

Investigation completed. Case has been turned in to a supervisor for review.
Normally clearance decisions occur very soon after submission to a supervisor.
Please feel free to check again in ten days or so.

Inhale. Exhale. Everything is going according to plan.

Posted by Dakota on 4:08 AM link |
An unexpected turn of events.

So I'm in Bulgaria. Things are going exactly as according to plan, so long as one changes the plan every 18 seconds. Nonetheless, this is, how you say, fortuitous. More on this topic at a later date.

Posted by Dakota on 4:05 AM link |

Thursday, June 03, 2004

We're all going to die. I mean, yes, of course. But this little report is dire. I mean, terrifying dire.

And the best part is: no American paper is carrying this story. Why? Because we live in a neo-stalinist state, is that it?

Posted by Dakota on 11:17 AM link |

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Words to live by:

Eagles may soar. But weasels don't get sucked into jet engines.

Posted by Dakota on 8:28 AM link |

That is to say: the US Embassy pointed my to Oculus, the first ever privatized eye clinic in the country of Romania. They were willing to give me contact lenses if I could tell them my prescription (left -4.00 right -5.00) and the base curvature of my eye (who knows such things?). A phone call to SCS, who googled my eye doctor, who told me everything I needed to know. The good people at Oculus informed me that they only had the contacts for the left eye, and that they could order the contacts for the right, set to arrive friday.

Total cost, including a bottle of solution: just under 4 million Lei. Which is: about $130, not cheap by any means.

But better than nothing, since if I had had to wait for an exam, then I wouldn't have been able to get an appointment until thursday of next week, and no contacts most likely until the week after.

The long and short of it: it's done, and that's all that matters. I am now looking at romania as a veritable den of thieves, and I am extremely hostile to anyone who tries to talk to me on the street. But hey, no one's robbing me again.

In T-Minus two days: Transylvaniaward. Dracula, how ARE you.

Posted by Dakota on 6:49 AM link |

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

All right, all right, after being in awe of a certain website which happens to be a certain permanent mission to the United Nations, I have decided to follow suit.

Please don't think that I'll be optimizing my website for firefox. Come now. Don't be ridiculous.

Indeed, as you can hopefully see, I've added a convenient forum for commenting on my blog, that being: via the 'comments' section. That said, it's Java-based and this computer (howdy doo, Romania) doesn't have Java and won't let me install it, so I can't actually see if it's working.

And now, I've got a date with an optomotrist. (It took forever to think of the correct o-doctor there. Obstetrician? I think not. Opthamalogist? Maybe? No. Optomotrist. There it is).

In related news, I was helped about 30 minutes ago by the most beautiful and wonderful consular officer I have ever met. I don't know her name. She was blond. She was smiley. She looked vaguely like Stephanie Hawkins from ESI, but without the meeting planning skills and more likely than not less of a propensity to burst into tears when yelled at under stress. I will refer to her (the consular officer, not stephanie hawkins) hereafter as My Girlfriend. Because we're in love.

After she gave me the list of doctors (including the first ever privatized eye clinic in romania, where I'll be heading toot-sweet), I thanked her (that's what we boyfriends do). "Can you read it?" she quipped. And I swooned.

In related news, I scoured my map for a good 20 minutes looking for 91-111 Calea Floreasca with no success whatsoever. With the help of the internet, I found it in about 10 seconds. God bless the fact that we're living in the FUTURE.

Posted by Dakota on 6:43 AM link |
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury:

Pop quiz. Let's say you're travelling, internationally, and let's say, just for kicks, that you're on a train from Budapest to Bucharest, enjoying the resonance between the two capital's names. Now, herein lies the quiz:

What would be the WORST thing that you could have stolen one a train bound for nowhere?

The answer: your toiletries case. God fucking DAMN IT, stolen at half past 3 a.m. and I SAW the frickin' thief, too, that's the worst part.

Now then, why, why on earth would anyone care about their stupid toiletries case? Toothbrush, deodorant, razor (a mach III, no less!): all these things are imminently replaceable (the deodorant less so, but still you see my point). So then, why the fuss?

This (my eyes, my EYES!) is what the noble-winged seraphs envied: my FUCKING CONTACT LENSES. Look at this tangle of thorns!

The lowdown: caught what looks like a bit of a cold in Budapest, eyes red and itchy, bothering me. Removed both contacts. Woke up the next morning and for ocular ease on the left side, inserted only the lens on the right (in the land of the blind: king). Snagged the overnight 6:10 Budapest to Bucharest Express. At approximately three a.m. I woke up with a start when I heard someone rustling my bag.

Now, everyone knows overnight trains, and especially Romania-bound overnights, are rife with thieves. So before I sleep, I use the handy carabiners one the outside of my bag to strap it to the bars on which it rests. Crude. Effective. In order to remove the bag, one can't help but jangle it, which makes noise and wakes me up. Thief sees me sit up, hears me ask: 'What the FUCK?' and sprints from the compartment. My bag's still there, I'm pleased with my anti-theft devise, and so I sit up, remove the book from my pocket and don't go back to sleep until we've passed Brasov and the train's filling with commuters who don't, generally speaking, steal.

Realized once we hit Siniai that something was missing. My toiletries bag had been neatly strapped to the outside of the bag when I got on the train (again, more handy carabiner work); and now, it exists no more.

I'll admit: this made me a bit testy. A bit? No. More than that. I was furious. Which was nice, because then I had no patience for the taxi touts and whatnot at the train station and didn't even try to be polite.

'Taxi.' 'Nu.' 'Where are you going?' 'NU. MULTSU-fucking-MESC, all right?'

So then, I'm now in an internet cafe biding time till 1 p.m. local romanian time, to hit the US embassy and ask American Services: happen to know of an english speaking eye doctor? Because I'm blind from left of the nose full 180 degrees, and the right side is set to expire in two weeks, probably sooner since contact solution doesn't exist in the country.

Hopefully they can help. Otherwise, I'm winging it in a romanian speaking optical shop on my own. Good times. Good, good times.

Posted by Dakota on 3:39 AM link |
Current Location:
The People's Republic of China.

Stop by any time: everyone's welcome.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem to Be Born

Comments and requests for dates should be directed to email.

And here I am.

And for all you random folks out there whom I don't know, for the love of god, email me. I'm abroad, know no one, and look forward to hearing from you. I'm especially looking at YOU, whomever YOU are who's Facing The Sun all the way from Kenya. And Sweden. And Canada. And whatnot.

Books Tackled, 2006:

1. Jarhead, Anthony Swofford
2. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, Dennis Covington
3. A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
4. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, Anonymous
5. Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, Dawn Prince-Hughes

This year's movies, in chronological order:

1. Kung Fu Hustle
2. A Wrinkle in Time
3. Pi: Faith in Chaos
4. My Big Fat Independent Movie
5. The Winter Guest
6. Voices in Wartime
7. What Dreams May Come
8. Farewell My Concubine
9. The Ring
10. Like Water for Chocolate
11. Sahara

Foreign Service Officers by day, Bloggers by day as well.

The Diplodocus
(Islamabad, Pakistan).

The Permanent Mission of Joshie
(Zagreb; Libyaward).

Prince Roy
(Chennai; Taiwanward).

Sue and not You
(Tbilisi, Georgia).

Life on the Mekong
(Vientiane, Laos).

FSO Globe Trotter
(Lahore, Pakistan).

Vice Consul: Diplomatically Transformed
(New Delhi, India).

Adventures in Good Countries

Our Man in Tirana
(Tirana, Albania).

Anne's Blog
(Kazakhstan; Greeceward).

(Bogota, Colombia).

Furnish Worldwide

Tasman's World
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

(Lome, Togo).

World Adventurers
(Seoul, Korea).

Aaron Martz

A for Adventure
(Chennai, India).

The Excellent Adventures of Nickie P
(Paris, France).

Permanently Disco
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

Consul At Arms
(Kingston, Jamaica).

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com
Five Random DC bloggers. Asterix indicates recently updated.