Blas New Year

Sunday, December 31. 2006
Booyah to all the drunk people out there.

Stuff you to the people who would laugh because I'm not going anywhere tonight.

Good luck getting a taxi home, too. Bitches.

But really, I could just say I have nowhere to be, or any cash to waste, or that greater needs stand in the way of me getting violently drunk and power-vomiting James Brown style into the toilet of the most tryhard nightclub in the country. They are charging at least twenty bucks to get in tonight, I cant imagine what drove me to be here instead of that raucous waste-o-time where I might be getting down to the latest prescription top-twenty bullshit and wannabe house music. Its just an unfortunate relative of circumstance that I am stuck in the arse end of humanity for this anniversary of a rock completing an orbit of a ball of fire, on an arbitrarily chosen day. Pity for me. I could be stuck here any of a plethora of other days. I have better things to be doing.

Not really. What a crock. Tomorrow Im going to wake up and Ill still be wearing the same boxer shorts I wore to bed, the world will not have changed and most importantly of all, Im going to go on living like it was any other goddamn day. Some days are better, others need work. What will tomorrow bring all us lucky people? The same bullshit as usual, pops, hold the sarcasm.

Except I likely wont have a hangover.

Peace out. I bet none of you had as much fun as me.

Letting Go 18: Bulgaria

Tuesday, December 19. 2006
Bulgaria was a country that I didnt give nearly enough time or attention to, but the weather had well and truly beaten me. Well and truly. Not having clothes for that kind of weather was the killer, and I wasnt going to run out and buy ski gear for a weeks use. Call me a tightarse if you will.

In the forlorn bus and train station that Skopje probably called futuristic when it was built all those years ago (the architectural style can only be described as Blade Runner) the bus to Sofia didnt come. The electronic signboard said it was supposed to be there but no, it was not. Where could it be? A flurry of people and Macedonian swirled around as the cold air made me want to piss. What was going on? A guy wearing sunglasses asked me the same question. I told him I didnt know, then extracted the answer from a local and passed it on to him. We immediately became travel buddies. Thats just how it works out there.

Turns out my new friend had spent longer in Skopje than most humans ever would want to, holed up in a hotel recovering from being beaten up and mugged by gypsies. My camera had gone missing, but at least I hadnt suffered any physical punishment in the process. He was wearing sunglasses because his glasses had been broken in the attack and otherwise couldnt see anything. Prescription sunnies, you know.

The three oclock bus turned into the three thirty bus to the border, where we would possibly catch another bus to Sofia. This sounded sketchy from the get-go and after what happened getting into the country, well damn, I wasnt getting out easily. The border crossing is high in the hills and was covered in snow. It was freezing out there, as we piled out and dragged our bags over the border (first border crossed on foot!), at least the guards were easy on us. The word went around that they were bastards on checking bags and stuff, but we got off easy. Good for us. Then we had to wait until the new bus came, then on the bus while someone kept the whole procession up with passport issues. Then the bus driver had to get an official letter explaining that a passenger had been detained and thats why the bus that dropped the people off had one more passenger than the one that had collected them. Yeah, might need a paper trail there.

So we arrived in Sofia later than expected, but not too late. With some local help we acquired a taxi and had it told where to go, and soon enough we were tramping through a dark street looking for Hostel Mostel. I name it by name because it is a very good name. I cant decide what it means, even now. There was room and we were in from the cold, we had food and it looked like a cool place. Lucky for us, finally. Then we go to see where our beds are and lo, there is actually only one empty. Shit. How about you share it? Asks the girl behind the counter. Her name was Mariya, but not knowing this I called her Hostel lady and she overheard me, so the name stuck. Later, showing off my ability to read and write the funny ball of mystery that is the Cyrillic alphabet in an attempt to impress her, she let it be known that it was not amusing. But I am charming (I think its a side effect of whatever disease I had in Macedonia, since I had not previously exhibited this trait) and I talked her into accepting the alternative Hostel girl. Failing that, an agreement was reached granting me the privilege of just using her name. Good.

So share the bed with new travel buddy. It would be a bonding experience, dont get me wrong, but do we really want that? Is it going to work out? Will we indeed be Friends Forever as such a situation would require? Thankfully someone didnt show up and there was a spare bed available. It was in the girls only dorm, but an exception was made. I didnt get that bed. I got the one in the big noisy dorm next to the common room. It was noisy, but also just as good as an alarm clock.

This hostel comes awful close to perfection. Being a cold few days in barely-exotic Bulgaria, it will never have the situational circumstance required to push it into the higher echelons of my hostel rankings, but it was pretty damn good. Cheap, too, by Europes standards. Breakfast from eight thirty to midday, proving that they know their audience, plus a bowl of pasta and a beer every night. Know your audience. Out of season in a city that aint exactly on the backpacker trail in a country most people arent in a rush to get to, well this place was full every night I was there. Damn lucky given that I didnt have a booking. Ride that lucky wave.

This was it. Time to cook. We had pasta and rudimentary supplies so a basic attempt at pasta was made. It was not good. I found out that any food this guy touches turns to shit, so I never made that mistake again. I was to learn much along these lines.

It was quiet for some reason that night, lulling me into a false sense of the real character of the hostel. I chatted with Hostel girl for a while and went to bed.

The noise coming from next door was as good an alarm clock as anything. There was quite the crowd staying there and they were all having breakfast. I went and joined them. The festive atmosphere was something else, you dont find that very often, even in places with the communal breakfast. Maybe its the location, the fact that Bulgaria is just a little bit off the map for most people, or something, that gave a bond to the place. Anyway, it was freezing outside but we had a mission. My compadre had to go and buy a new pair of glasses and had enlisted the help of a Japanese girl. The three of us went down to the optometrist on the main drag and helped him choose some frames. After that it was a cursory look around town, the communist era ugly concrete meets the new capitalist shopping spree that characterises too many cities in these parts, and we settled down with a drink in the cultural centre, which is the most fancy name for a shopping mall Ive ever heard. They didnt even bother putting in an art gallery to legitimise the name, although in their heads its possible that the cinema does that job. Since it was showing the Borat movie, I couldnt have agreed more.

I was suffering every time we stepped outside. After the drinks break it was time to find a post office (I had taken Als key and he needed it back) and to maybe look about the place. But the wind tore through my light clothing and uncovered head, my nose was running and I was most pissy. We found the post office and lo, they were grouchy and unhelpful. Then I went back to the hostel to try and feel human again. After the illness layover in Ohrid I wanted very much to avoid a similar situation.

I felt worse and worse as the afternoon wound on and the night came creeping in at four thirty. I ate the pasta and drank a lot of water and felt better. It was something of a miracle. At least I would remain upright for the duration. I met a bunch of the others, and avoided a bunch more. There was the unfortunate blokey-bloke contingent, some meathead Americans and their traitorous Aussie sidekick, enthused endlessly about how cheap the beer and lapdances were. So common, yet always ugly. I got talking to a girl who had a head full of dreadlocks and we played that common game of guess where I am from? that generally is both predictable and begins with someone accusing me of being either British or American. Maybe they take a stab at Kiwi or South African, the attempted politically correct Canadian, before despairing on the right answer. I went first and humiliated myself, the obvious answers all being shot down. Then the best thing ever happened. She was from Moldova. I had been jonesing to get there, but the abortive mission to Romania had scuttled that, so this was as close as I was going to get. I spent the rest of the evening talking to her and her friends, growing weary of my sunglass wearing padre. We went out to find a bar that no-one could find, and then went back.

The next day, the weather was slightly better. It was bearable outside, so I took the Japanese girl to the post office and we found our way to a few of the city sights. Sofia has a passable collection of sights, and also some Dunkin Donuts stores. Japanese girl had spent a lot of time in Australia over the years and had an Aussie accent. She was also having it off with the hostel owner but was being either embarrassed or coy about it, with no good reason for either. So I didnt even bother having the charm turned on and you know what? Even without the thin layer that I am capable of generating, I had taken to thinking it was the only thing stopping people from becoming totally alienated. This didnt happen. Maybe Im getting better at this human stuff. I might never find out. Either way, nothing terrible exciting happened in Sofia, but it was a time marked with good people and handsome fun.

The next stop with my ever present companion was Plovdiv, a few hours down the road. With the reputation of being Bulgarias most pleasant location, I had chosen it as a stop. The reputation was indeed correct, but the major bungle came when my friend (who I had given the job of arranging accommodation, a simple task given that the hostel in Sofia would hook it up upon a simple request) had failed to find out where the place was located. I was unimpressed.

Some enquiries took us into the centre of town and then a hit and run at an internet caf got us the address. It was easy after that. The Hikers Hostel is another really nice place, small and cosy without being cramped. Good staff and good location, also helped by Plovdiv being such a quality city. Pity then that the first night I was there I was racked by a fever, possibly bought on by the cold, and failed to enjoy it too much. It was just the two of us there that night, which was a small blessing.

Plovdiv is a town built on six hills and one pit. It used to be a seven hill town, just like Rome, but the seventh hill was used for paving stones. Now you can see the pit that used to be the hill, and despair. So the next day, with me feeling better, I went out and saw the Roman remnants of yesterday, climbed the hills and wished I could take some photos. Laid back and still feeling like it could be fun, the balance is just right. Its a place I could spend a lot of time, given health and good weather.

The next day we belted down to the bus station and were late. Good thing we only had to wait an hour.

Letting Go 17: Macedonia

Tuesday, December 19. 2006
Leaving Albania turned into one of the biggest little adventures so far. Thinking back I can scarcely believe how it went down, but in hindsight it was quintessentially Albanian and Macedonian.

The bus left Tirana at six pm, and I was going to a town just over the border. I figured it shouldnt take too long to get there. I had to get to Struga, in Macedonia, and from there get to the bus station and go 15 kilometres down the road to Ohrid and call a guy there. Easy, no challenge, just get there, call. If only it was so simple.

The bus left on time, all right. Getting the ticket had been fun. I ran around all the travel agencies on Zog Boulevard and they all sent me to somewhere else. Eventually one of the old ladies working there sent me with her daughter to get it sorted out and she helped me get a ticket. So at six I ate my last Albanian hamburger and jumped on the transport. I remember wondering why it took so long to get to where the border should be, when I noticed it was going the wrong way. It went west to Durres instead of east to Qafa San. Then south through Elbasan before stopping just before the border so everyone could pile off and get dinner. I had no more money so I sat on the bus and waited. It was almost nine oclock by then. Not too late, I rationalised. I would still get there by about ten or so. It was another half hour by the time the bus was moving again.

The border crossing took another 40 minutes. I had been taken off to buy a visa (40 Euros, again maybe ripped off, but I was powerless to argue) and standing in the cold outside I had a talk to a Kosovar guy on his way home. The bus was bound for good old Prishtina, so most of the passengers were headed that way. After my passport came back I went back on and kept waiting. I fell asleep.

I slept without fear, because the busses all have a conductor whose job it is to make sure everyone gets off where they are supposed to. So when I woke up and saw it was past midnight, and the bus was stopped in the middle of nowhere, I was a little worried. I looked outside and saw my Kosovar friend, gesturing at me. I sleepily jumped off and asked him where we were. He said the name of some little town, and asked me where I was going. I told him Struga and he looked shocked. Wed passed Struga ages ago The conductor had forsaken me! Oh shit, I didnt even know where I was. It was late and cold, I was confused and sleepy. But my Kosovar friend told the driver what had happened and he apologised, then hooked up a ride back. This was good, but also bad, because it meant I had to take a ride with a total stranger in the middle of the night to somewhere I had no idea about, to contact someone I knew was likely asleep. Things were looking a little grim.

But I had no choice. So the bus left, I took my bag and jumped into a white van with a Macedonian guy. He spoke patchy English, based mostly on German, so conversation was limited. Not impossible, but definitely limited. However, as the van cruised through the night, past a sign telling me that Struga was more than 100 kilometres further down the road, I found out that his name was Dino. He was a bodyguard by profession and something of a local businessman. I can describe how he looks easily, because he resembles oh-so closely everyones favourite hero. From the cut of his suit, to the beard, to the pistol he carried, to the cowboy hat my new friend and saviour was the Macedonian Chuck Norris. Dead ringer. Texas Walker Ranger. The real deal. Did I mention he had a gun? Yep. I was either the safest guy in all Macedonia, or the most fucked.

We cruised down the road. He stopped briefly at all the roadhouses and motels, to check in and ensure the safety or something. This was his beat, apparently. It was a co-incidence of the highest order that he happened to be at the road stop where I had run into trouble. So if this was to be my night, so be it, or if it was to be the night I got shot by a crazy Chuck Norris wannabe, so be it also.

Somehow the conversation went on. I speak good German is the memorable quote, spoken with utmost confidence and delivered somehow with the nuance that I am a bad person for not being able to speak good German (or, at all) and that he naturally is in the enviable position he has reached as a result and because of his ability to speak good German. But, the aftertaste is something to the flavour of, my German is so good that it is enough for the both of us and all of my nation as well and it also enables me to speak English unswervingly (however shaky the understanding might be). His lack of English is therefore somehow my fault, but he would never think of holding it against me. His superiority is never in question, and this is why Dino is the greatest guy in Macedonia. Maybe the world. So we conversed.

The conversation drifted off, like I was half scared the car would if he fell asleep. But we rolled along and unswervingly. Until the engine started giving out. Oh fuck, I thought. Sure, Dino kept the car moving for a little bit longer, but inevitably the heater cut out and the engine gave up the fight. We rolled to the side of the road and stopped. The emergency lights came on and it was at this point Dino noticed the needle on the petrol metre was pointing past the E at the bottom.

One car passes, despite Dino flashing lights at them. We sit in silence. Dino tries the engine again. Another car comes. I have almost resigned myself to freezing to death in my middle-of-nowhere dark Macedonian night hell when the car stops. Praise be!

Dino talks to the guy in Macedonian. Its just clicked past two am. I am instructed to assist the operation they have put together, which is gathering plastic bottles from the side of the road God bless the litter happy populace of the southern Balkans and filling them up with petrol from our new friends car. Using a length of hose that someone had handy, syphoning just like in the movies. I am wearing shorts and freezing. I ferry bottles of petrol back and forth from one car to the other until I am allowed to cease. Next, I find myself holding a light that is plugged into the lighter so that the gentlemen can try to fix the engine that no longer wants to start. Good Samaritan jiggles things in the engine while Dino pushes button inside. I can feel the frostbite coming on. Melodrama has hit a new high. Then, the engine starts.

Numbers are swapped, angels sing from heaven, stars fall from the sky, we drive on. Whether the Good Samaritan made it wherever he wanted to go, we never found out. I fell asleep after warming my hands in front of the heater and regaining feeling in my extremities, as well as my not-so-extremities.

We are back around the lake area when I wake up. Struga and Ohrid are so close together one might be able to walk, but few do. During the day a bus runs regularly enough. But at a quarter past three in the morning, the options are few and far between. I cant go onto Ohrid until the morning, nowhere will be open to stay. Dino recognises the situation and tells me I am to accompany him to his place of business to sleep the night. I am so happy I could almost cry, except Im so tired it wouldnt matter.

The great man, the gunslinger of Struga, the protector of Macedonia, the prince of the night, the man who keeps both eyes on justice and liberty but none on the petrol gauge my new friend Dino. He runs a petrol station. Whats the Macedonian word for Fucking Ironic? Spell it for me, I cant read Cyrillic so well.

I sleep on a chair at the back of the shop. Its cold but I make do; what a long night.

The rest of my time in Macedonia was nothing compared to getting there. Unfortunately, my timing was best described as shithouse and my physical condition as shitty. These two adjectives conspired to leave me inside escaping from weather that veered from cold to freezing, with a good smattering of snow, farting like it was the new hot craze while making runs to the toilet to pass matter that can only be described as liquid from both ends. It was not fun. I passed almost half a week in Ohrid like this, managing to venture out long enough to see the sights and check my e-mail. It wasnt all dribbling shits and snowflakes though, my time in Ohrid furnished me with a number of other notable occurrences and acquaintances.

Id made a contact with what I thought was a local there, that turned out to be an American volunteer with the Peace Corps doing his thing with the locals to inspire and encourage tourism in the area. Al was a really nice guy, as only the mid-west-central-empty-rural-flyover bits of the USA can produce with alarming regularity. If he were an Aussie, wed call him True Blue. Hed been around and he had a real swathe of travel stories to share, so I got to spend my mornings and evenings sitting at his table talking travel and politics and stuff. Al had learned Macedonian and was not afraid to use it, and along with extensive experience in tourism and travel, seems to me just the guy to help put the local industry in the right direction. But I found out how the local psyche works and let me pass on to you this: it doesnt really like to.

More descriptively, it went like this. The morning I woke up at Dinos petrol station, it was about six am and freezing. There was a lady working there and she spoke no English, but obviously knew who I was. I sat around and observed the goings on of Dinos little empire until he showed up around midday. Aside from the lady, who I think is Dinos wife, there were a few small children whom I played with and any number of young men around the place. Whether they were Dinos own kids or relatives of some other type, local kids working for him or otherwise conscripted, they acted with utmost reverence to the Man and jumped on command, only coming down when told. Benevolent dictator is another title we can bestow upon our hero of the day.

Eventually Dino finished the mornings business and drove me to Ohrid. We stopped a little while in Struga so he could meet a friend of his and I took the chance to get some food. Then onto Ohrid where I met Al at his place of work and we went back to his place. It was an attic set of rooms with an awesome view of the town and lake, very idyllic, and looked like quite a nice place to be. Good thing, as I was stuck there a good while.

The town had been there since antiquity, as evidenced by the numerous ancient and antique sites around (a long standing feud with Greece of various heritages discludes locals from admitting that anything is specifically Byzantine or Greek or something) and is perked up by the addition of a whole lot of little Orthodox churches, often picturesquely located on cliffs and other dramatic settings. Half of the proceedings are wrapped by the old city wall, where the Ottomans kept the local Christian population during their heyday, the other half sprawls out from there, partly the Turkish town built by said Ottomans, partly modern urban sprawl. Then theres the lake.

A big mirror of a thing, half in Macedonia, half in Albania, it is really big and really deep. How big and how deep and where this places the lake in relation to other lakes in the Balkans, Europe and the world, and such facts escape me, but I can recall that it is very big and very deep. You can see across to Albania most days and large sections are ringed by mountains, some of which already had a generous hat of snow. It looks clean but Al advised me otherwise, claiming diving in the lake reveals a generous array of scum, garbage and other detritus, ranging from civilian clutter to military refuse. Theres guns and stuff down there among the plastic bottles and bicycles. Local superstition dissuades people from taking anything out of the lake, so it gets to live there more or less permanently, until a solution greater than all of us presents itself.

I managed to see the sights and didnt get frostbite. It was pleasant, but visiting in a better season might not be a bad idea. Freezing temperatures put a hold on all but the most simple of activity and lack of real snow meant that sliding based ones arent on the menu either. Next time, I suppose.

So it was I bade farewell to Al and his tales and went off to Skopje. The much maligned, misunderstood and misplaced of all the capitals of the former Yugoslavia (but Podgorica might just give it a run for its money now), I had not heard much positivity coming from others talk of the town. Bugger them, it cant be that bad. It was. Half circumstantial, half my fault, I stayed one forlorn night in Skopje and was there a smidge over 24 hours. The youth hostel is outrageously expensive and cheap hotels elusive. I also happened to arrive on a Saturday night and not being in a party mood didnt seek out any of the non-existent clubs anyway. Sunday in Skopje is a dead, deeply annoying and depressing experience. Simply no-one is around, the righteous being in church, the sane warm at home. Open shops were a rarity, its a small wonder I even managed to eat. Everything in the bazaar was closed and I might have seen all of twenty people hustling through the cold. I walked around the bazaar twice in vain, hoping to find maybe a postcard or a kebab, but to no avail. The national art gallery was open and free, so I went to see. It is housed in the old train station (the el-primo location obviously not considered for the new train station, which is way on the edge of town) and the clock on the front remains stopped at the moment of the big earthquake that hit in the seventies. The people working there had to turn the lights on for me. That was novel.

So despite my best interests and intentions, I made my way to the bus station with almost an hour to kill to prepare for departure, happy to be leaving. No hard feelings, I do want to like all these places I go, but Skopje, it wasnt you, it was me.

Weather and garbage

Thursday, December 7. 2006
Months and months off and the most exciting thing I could think of to post is this. Weather and garbage. Says it all, pretty much.

When I came home yesterday afternoon I noticed a foul smell in the building. The people who live on the first floor had left a whole bunch of garbage in the stairwell outside their apartment. That's pretty gross, and it was several hours before garbage collection time of 8:20pm but fine. Except that garbage collection time came and went and the garbage didn't. It sat there all day today and finally left tonight. This is disgusting - I don't mind this sort of stuff but leaving stinky, rotten, food garbage in a public place on the first floor means everyone has to suffer the smell when they go out or return. Fuck that, you arseholes.

After two months of unreasonably good weather, the winter rain of Taipei had set in. Or so I had thought. Today (and yesterday, to a lesser extent) were so beautiful I could barely bring myself to go to school. Hope it lasts.

As you can imagine, a ton of stuff has happened in the (embarassingly long) interval since I last posted here. I'm going to leave it for the moment in the hope that I will remain motivated enough to turn it into a bunch of separate posts.

I'm at a bit of loss with the site. I think it needs a spring clean and I haven't updated Serendipity in forever. The trackback spam is really killing us. You've got to wonder what use it is to anyone.

Spare a thought for the Bancho, too.