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Archive for August, 2008

The Revolutionary

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

The hunched old man waved me down from the yard of the museum and haltingly stumbled towards me.  We had just gotten on the road after a short break, but how could I ignore such a genuine effort to interact with us?  Pete and I turned back.  We met the man at his gate.  Though his blue eyes sparkled with the intensity of a clear mind, we assumed someone so ancient wouldn’t be able to speak English.  Pete communicated with him in German.  He eagerly pressed Pete with questions about our trip.  We noticed he seemed to fill in German words he didn’t know with English ones.  Before we could ask if he spoke English as well, he ordered us to wait “funf minute”.

He retreated slowly but hurriedly into his house, which was next to a building la bled “56 os Muzeum”.  Tanks and artillery pieces crowded the lawn. I realised that this must be a museum commemorating the 1956 uprising in Hungary against the occupying Russians.  When our friend hobbled back and gave us a bag of sweets, I thanked him and couldn’t help asking, “Were you in the revolution?”  His eyes glimmered and he motioned us inside the compound.  “Give me ten minutes,” he said.  We had apparently convinced him that we were actually English speakers.  Nakia and Drew had already biked off.  Pete and I exchanged glances.  This opportunity seemed too goo to pass up.

Gergely (or Edmond) Pongratz not only participated in the revolution, but helped lead it.  He first showed us a huge artillery piece.  He retreated behind a bush, ordering “Now watch!”  He pulled a rope behind the bush that was attached to the firing lever of the weapon. The Hungarian rebels used this method to fire captured canon back at the Russians from a safe distance.  The Hungarians, while superior in numbers, were completely outgunned by the Russians.  Almost all of their weapons were captured from the enemy.

He took us inside the small museum.  A huge map of Europe covered on entire wall.   A gun case displaying period weapons, photographs and various artifacts from the revolution completed the collection.  Gergely demonstrated with youthful enthusiasm how Hungarians had used Molotov cocktails to disable tanks as they tried to suppress the rebellion.

Like all of the Eastern Bloc, Hungary found itself occupied by Russian troops after they had pushed out the Germans at the end of World War II.  Hungary went straight from Nazi domination to Soviet control when the Russian soldiers failed to withdraw and installed a puppet regime.  Hungary had to pay a huge war debt to Russia and fulfill strict quotas for goods demanded by the Soviet. History says it was frustration from this situation boiled over into a revolt in October of 1956.

I asked Edmund why he decided to fight the Russians and pro-Soviet forces.  “They wanted to make everything Russian,” explained Edmund, “our agriculture, our economy, our culture. We wanted to be free.”  Hungary was free, for a while.  The October rebellion effectively neutralized Russian power in Hungary.  “In their archives,” gloated Edmund, “they say we beat the shit out of them.”

Unfortunately, Russia had reinforcements.  After a short period of freedom, Hungarian defenders were crushed by more than a doyen Russian armored divisions,  and the USSR managed to maintain control over the country until union itself dissolved from the inside.

The Museum doesn’t cover the aftermath of the failed rebellion. Instead, it focuses on the spirit of independence and heroism demonstrated by rebels.  That is perhaps the most important part of the story.  Edmund proved that he can focus on the most important things in other areas, too.  “Some people might look at you and say ‘Who are those monks with big beards?’  But I look at you and know you’re good guys.”  We left with a bag full of sweets and confidence that not everyone will judge us based on our beards.  We also gained a better understanding of Hungarian History and the human capacity for valor.  Thanks, Edmund!

Street Performing in Istanbul: An Audiovisual Collage

Friday, August 29th, 2008

In Istanbul, we performed music on the street for the first time - as street performers and not, well, village and home-stay performers as we had in Asia. People in Asia often seemed to be more interested in looking at our strangeness and talking about us rather than listening to our music. Istanbul marked our biggest transition - in living standards, culture, and continents, as well as attracting audiences that stopped and listened simply because they honestly wanted to hear our music for what it is and not just stare at our foreignness. It was new and exciting for us to play in this dynamic environment.

And for the first time on the trip, we earned money…more than we ever thought possible from street performing. Although no city thus far has been more fruitful than Istanbul, we have been earning enough money from our music to pay for all of our food - one of the most amazing blessings we have been given on this trip. It does help that we never eat in restaurants and keep a simple diet of bread, dairy, and vegetables.

Another blessing is the people we have met while performing. Ignatius and Louise, two professional photographers from Brazil, found us our first day on Istanbul´s famous pedestrian street, Istiklal Street, in Taxim, when we were brand new to European street performing. Their excitement and patience - staying with us over an hour before we stopped so they could talk with us - greatly encouraged and emboldened us in our new career. They were so kind to take the time to compile these photos and one of our songs in this presentation. We are humbled and grateful for such a beautiful composition. Unfortunately, Jim missed these days performing in Istanbul because he left early with his mom to meet up with his sister who came to visit. You can use the mouse to scroll through the photos.

You can find the original slide show in it’s own window here.

With Louise and Ignatius in Istanbul

Playing Budapest

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

After about a week of riding from Belgrade, we arrived in Budapest yesterday afternoon after a short day of 30km. We biked in straight to the center of town (on the Pest side), ate a leisurely lunch in a park along the Danube River, and then sought out the pedistrian street to perform our music on. We were blessed with a warm response despite being asked to move locations once by a neighbor who doesnt seem to like harmonious noise close to her apartment.

Trying something new, we are staying with a new friend, Anna, a Budapest local, whom we found on-line at, which is a free database of people willing to host travelers for free at their homes - a most excellent use of the internet. Besides Anna who sounded eager in her message to host us, another young man offered to house us for our 2-3 days in Hungary`s capital. Anna met us in a park down town, showed us on a map how to get to her apartment, and gave us an extra key to her place. She went to meet up with a friend while we walked with Robert and Agem (two amazingly nice young people who became fans during and friends after we played music) to her apartment…an hour away by foot it turned out. We cooked ourselves a pasta dinner and made ourselves at home, with Anna joining soon joining us with her boyfriend.

Anna`s immidiate trust and warm welcome reminds me of Bilge and Asli Kőprűlű in Istanbul, Turkey, amazing me how trusting new friends (some may say perfect strangers) can be. Imagine if we all were a little more trusting and giving, would it not make life more pleasant? What is it that holds us back? What makes us suspicious first, holding a guilty until proved innocent attitude toward a new person instead of the opposite? Some precautions are of course necissary - we have to have a profile with our passport number and photo on the Hospitality Club for example - but perhaps we could all benefit by reaching out in faith and fellowship just a little more.

That’s history

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

The radio in the Matic’s Belgrade apartment blares out Radio MFM all day long. The station plays an eclectic mix of American and British music, from classic rock to Golden Oldies, 80’s pop and Mississippi blues. To my consternation, Lela recognizes the songs faster and knows the lyrics and better than I do. Once, the radio played a song we knew, but couldn’t identify. Bina called her husband and brother-in-law, who identified the song immediately.

When the beatles were banned from Russia and American school children cowered under their desks in hopes of surviving nuclear holocaust, Yugoslavia welcomed Western culture, yet maintained a diplomatically friendly and economically prosperous relationship with the Russia. Many countries that fell under the influence of both the USSR and the USA hosted terrible proxy wars that left those countries in shambles (Vietnam, Afghanistan), but Yugoslavia managed to work the situation to its advantage.

“Tito,” Bina told me several times, “we don’t know who was he, but he was the best.” Many Serbians attribute the prosperity of the early to mid cold war years to careful, quiet maneuvering by Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia until 1981. During that time, Yugoslavian passports were highly valued and foreign culture flowed over the borders freely.

History has not always been so sweet for Serbians. A musician introduced to me by Lela ran her fingers through her raven dark lochs and said of Lela and herself, “We are not blond because our grandmothers did not run fast enough.” She explained that during the time when the Ottoman Empire controlled the Balkans, the Turkish rulers mandated that Serbian brides spend their first night of marriage with a Turkish army officer and not with their husbands.

For the past millennium, Serbia has often found itself under the heel of one powerful empire or another. However, Serbians have a reputation for bearing up under oppression. Most never converted under the Ottoman empire. Serbians demonstrated in the street and supported a coup after the Serbian prince signed an agreement with the Nazis.

In downtown Belgrade, remnants of Serbia’s last showdown with a great power still yawn their jagged faces into an otherwise beautiful city-scape. Referred to as “the NATO exhibition by more sarcastic residents, these buildings were bombed by NATO in 1999. NATO claims the bombing was in response to ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbs in Kosovo. Serbians claim the motivation for bombing was much more political.

There is a tendency to look at the bombing as just another act of a superpower drunk on strength that has blundered into Serbia’s affairs. The bombing successfully expelled Serbian forces from Kosovo and allowed the installation of NATO and UN troops. However, graffiti saying: “Kosovo is Serbia’s heart” announces the intentions of some Serbians to resist the latest ‘interference’ in Serbian affairs just as they’ve resisted such things in the past.

Not all Serbians think constantly of Kosovo. In fact it rarely comes up in normal conversation, and admissions of being from the U.S. seem to earn one nothing other than free drinks and food. It will be interesting to see how this chapter of history plays out in this country that has hosted so many historical chapters in the past. In the meantime everyone will have great music to which to listen.

Branko, Lela’s uncle and a purveyor of internet services welcomed me time after time into his internet café. After I had finished, he would ignore my claims of non-thirstiness and pour me a huge glass of beer. We sat outside, listening to his classic rock collection. He can name all the songs, all the artists, and knows the lyrics. A song I had never heard came on: Tobacco Road, by the leader of the Animals. As the bass thumped through the neighborhood and Eric Burden growled out of the speakers, Branko closed his eyes and sipped his beer. “For me,” he said, “this music is nirvana.”

Branko (red shirt) with Bruzhe and another guy from the neighborhood.

Jim Durfey’s article on Turkey for the Livingston Enterprise

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Published in the Enterprise August 13th, 2008.

 Turkish Hospitality Lends Luxury to Spartan Cycling Routine

By Jim Durfey

Five times a day the mellifluous call to prayer wafts across Istanbul.  Imams sing the entreaty to worship from minarets.  Mosques in Istanbul have two of these towers sprouting skyward in front of the domed prayer halls.  Gilded in bronze, silver and gold, the mosques glimmer across the skyline.  The largest rival the magnificence of any European cathedral.

We had seen plenty of mosques in India, but Indian mosques paled in comparison to the huge, exquisitely decorated Turkish halls of worship.  To get here, we had to skip two other Muslim countries: Pakistan and Iran.  While Iran is by all counts safe to visit, doing so for Americans proved prohibitively expensive for our shoestring budget.  We heard mixed reports about Pakistan.  Traveling there would probably be safe, but all the routes around Iran would take too long.  Reluctantly, we booked cheap tickets from Western India to Istanbul.

We landed, appropriately enough , on the very edge of Asia.  Istanbul, for centuries a cultural bridge between East and West, straddles the Bosporous Strait, and is therefore technically half in Europe and half in Asia.  From here we would commence the end of our journey; the final leg that would bring us across Europe to Paris.

My mother Netzy, a special-ed teacher at East Side Elementary, finished class for the summer just before we flew to Turkey.  She is an avid biker and enjoys traveling.  With her summer open, she decided to join us for a month.  She met us in Istanbul.

Though she biked often around Livingston, Netzy wasn’t used to our style of travel.  Especially in Europe, we could ill afford hotel rooms or restaurants.  Sleeping always meant camping.  For meals we purchased the cheapest staples: bread and tomatoes.  We sliced them up and gnawed away while sitting on the ground.

After biking for a day in hot weather, we usually found ourselves in need of a shower.  Lacking actual facilities, we could usually find a friendly homeowner willing to donate a garden hose to our cleanliness.  Already accustomed to bathing every night in whatever water was available at pumps in India, I had economized my bathing procedures.  Some areas get dirtier than others.  Why bother washing clean areas?  Shampoo is heavy and expensive and hair washing requires lots of water.  I had more important things to do, anyway.

From the beginning, Netzy put up with our penchant for camping and simple diet better than most mature, civilized women might.  However, she was not pleased with my hair hygiene.  Every time we passed a barber shop, she chided, “Let’s take you in their and get you cleaned up!”  Eager to maintain sovereignty over my head, I always resisted this offer.

I found it harder to resist Turkish hospitality.  We stayed in Istanbul at three different homes over the course of a week.  We had initially planned to camp on the outskirts of town.  However, Turks we met briefly lost no time inviting us into their homes.  When they learned we planned to camp, they insisted we stay, despite the size of our group and the quantity of our gear.

After a few days of preparation in Istanbul, we left, and Netzy commenced her first long ride with a loaded bike.  I appointed myself navigator, and had to stop often to ask for directions at gas stations and cafes.  When I returned to the road, I inevitably found Netzy sitting down, drinking tea proffered by friendly people relaxing by the roadside. Turkish hospitality, again!

Despite the tea, a full day of biking uphill in heavy traffic proved a rough initiation into our style of travel.  At the end of the day, Netzy was pooped.  All she wanted was a hotel and a hot shower.  However, the small town in which we found ourselves had no hotel-only a steep hill and an army base.  On the edge of town, I spotted a fire station.  No five star accommodation, but they did have flat open space in which a tent could be set up.  I stopped at the gate and used hand motions to ask a bemused fireman if I could camp in the back of the yard.

Before we knew it, we were seated in the fire station lounge, drinking coffee and tea.  All the firemen on duty quizzed us on what we were doing.  Yunus, a man with intelligent, inquisitive eyes hastily tore the August 2008 page out of the desk calendar.  He drew maps on the back to determine where I was from and where I had been.  Metin,  a young, serious officer broke into a grin when he found I was from the U.S.  He flexed his left bicep and formed an even bigger bicep around it with his right hand.  “American firemen strong,” he said.  I glanced at the ranks of muscled men before me.  I imitated his motion and said, “Turkish firemen are also strong.”  Everyone laughed.  The chief chuckled proudly as Netzy admired pictures of his grand children.

Suddenly, Metin rose from his chair.  He mimed water falling on his head. “Douche,” he said.  “Shower,” I translated.  Netzy jumped up and clasped her hands together, “Oh yes, thank you!” she said, unable to remain calm at the prospect of getting clean.  I let her go first.

When it was my turn, Metin led me to the shower.  Before he left, his face lit up with a grin and he handed me a huge bottle of shampoo.  While I might choose to ignore my mother, I have been conditioned to obey firemen.

After we had showered in a real shower, the fire chief arranged for us to sleep in the prayer room of the gas station next door.  We went to bed that night with nothing to complain of: not the cleanliness of ourselves or my hair and especially not the hospitable nature of the Turkish people.


Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

From the moment we stumbled into her apartment smelling of sweat and lugging bicycles and piles of gear, Bina greeted us with a smile and a firm handshake.  We soon found that hidden in the smile was dictatorial control of the kitchen.  She cooked us a huge feast shortly after we arrived.  When we tried to insist on washing dishes, she drove us from the sink with deliberate firmness.  “Now you sleep,” she ordered, in English she’d studied in high school but hadn’t used much since then.

Fare typical of Bina’s sumptuous cooking.

Cloaked inside Bina’s forceful hospitality is deep compassion.  On our second day in Belgrade the wind picked up and the sky darkened.  We sat on the balcony watching the weather roll in, but Bina ran outside.   We watched her scramble around in the rain, attending to the four street dogs she has adopted.  She removed old blankets from where they hung in a tree and lined the bottom of a makeshift shelter with them.  She secured the plastic sheeting against the wind and encouraged the dogs-all of them spayed, neutered and fed on her account-to come in out of the rain.

After a couple of days we realized the magnificent meals and the refusals of our help would continue indefinitely.  I still persisted, however.  “Can I help with anything?” I asked one afternoon after Bina had announced “I will prepare you something special for lunch.”  She picked up a glass, filled it with beer, and said, “You can sit down and drink this.”

Unable to help, we began lounging around the house, waiting for the announcement “Children! The dinner is prepared!”  At her table we swilled wine and beer, gobbled enormous quantities of mashed potatoes, stuffed ourselves with flavorful meatballs, pounds of delectable fried fish, acres of tomatoes, whole wedges of cheese, and cow-sized portions of cake.  The quality of the food inspired me to ask Bina where she learned to cook.  Typically enigmatic, she answered simply, “What you love, you are good at.”

Bina never at with us.  After she filled our wine glasses, she retreated to the dining room, cigarette and wine glass in hand. However, if we said anything she had an opinion on, she would rush back into the kitchen, to ensure that her perspective was heard.  Often, Lela found the opinions by her mother in these interjections objectionable.  Issues bigger than a generation gap separate them.  Bina enjoys cigarettes and alcohol in all its varied forms.  Lela rarely drinks, never smokes, and wastes no chance to ridicule those practices.  “I must have been switched at the hospita,” says Lela with an eye roll when the gap between her and her mother’s tastes becomes apparent.

Bina, for her part, responds to these disagreements by calling Lela a “yellow chicken”. With Lela’s grudging assistance, Bina explained that a yellow chicken is a younger, inexperienced person who ruins a good time through needless or misguided interference or lack of participation.  When “the Peter”-as Bina calls our tallest member-refuses a second glass of wine, he becomes a yellow chicken as well.

We will no doubt miss our environment in Belgrade.  Like Bina’s street dogs, however, we will get along fine without her, if not as comfortably.  We will be very grateful to have been able to bask in the shadow of a caring individual before pressing on towards Paris.

FBR with (clockwise) Lela’s dad, Nikola, Lela, and Bina.

Visa Success! and status update

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

Hooray!  Nakia has obtained the Schengen Visa for Western Europe!

We feared and loathed it.  We thought it would be far worse than the terrible Bulgarian Visa.  We scrambled around printing off reams of documents,  transferring money, reserving hotels, writing consuls and ambassadors and others and figuring out our route months in advance.

Thursday morning Nakia walked into the French Embassy in Belgrade with reams of documents, bank statements, hotel reservations, maps and a heck of a lot of other stuff I’ve already forgotten.  At 3:30pm she returned and was handed a 90 day Schengen visa.  Holly cow!  We were so surprised we barely knew what to do.

To all of you who wrote the Schengen country embassies in Belgrade: Thanks!  It no doubt made the process much faster.

The visa doesn’t start till August 20th.  Until just before that date, we will stay in Belgrade with our Beijing acquaintance, now back in Serbia, Lela.  Her mother feeds us enormous amounts of food and never lets us help clean up.  When we leave, we will be fat and lazy.

Until then, we will relish the food and the easy visa snatch.  Thanks again to all those who wrote ambassadors.


Reverse Fruit Nazis

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

I’ve been told about the soup Nazi from Seinfeld. “No soup for you!” he purportedly says. Then he doesn’t give you any soup. With fruit I seem to be having the opposite problem lately.

Yesterday I stopped to take a picture of picturesque house. People sat on the porch at a house next door. I hoped they didn’t mind.  They not only didn’t mind, but gestured me over.  At the table sat four middle aged Serbians around a table with coke and grappa.  To my surprise, one of the men spoke a bit of English.   The man, Radoica quickly obtained where I was from, where I was going and where I had been.  His wife, a women with red hair and amazingly blue eyes, and the rest of the people at the table eagerly discussed each new piece of information.  I caught bits and pieces, but was mostly happy to sit out of the sun and drink something.  The wife of the other man offered me coffee.  I took it, knowing coke would not be enough to wash down grappa.

After the grappa, a man my own age showed up, the son of the coffee server.  He showed me pictures of his infant child and pictures of his pigs.  Suddenly, he was leading me through his yard, past reams of flower gardens, and into a building, and I was confronted with the smell and sight of real three dimensional pigs.  He gestured to my camera “take a picture, take a picture” he demanded.  I snapped a few, and soon we were off.  The family had a narrow plot of land that extended all the way to the expressway, and we walked past loads of fruit trees almost all the way to the highway.

He paused and tore a plastic bag out of his pocket with relish and grinned at me.  We were surrounded by plum and pear trees.  The ripening fruit had fallen on the ground and practically formed piles in places.  He held the bag and encouraged me to pick.  My plucking rate proving unsatisfactory, he shoved the bag towards me and himself grabbed handful after handful of fruit.  I had about 5-7 pounds by the time I had finished.  On the way out he showed me the well with a pump you’d find in the U.S. and a nice 60 gallon pressure tank to go with it.   I did the only thing I knew how to do, I gave him a thumbs up and a big smile.

When I got back to the porch, I barely had time to cram the fruit into my bags before Radoica was pulling me away from my initial hosts.  “Now, you come to my ranch,” he said.  It wasn’t a request so much as an order.  We strode into his yard and back to his own fruit trees.  It was clear I had somehow gotten in the middle of a “Who can give the American the most fruit contest.”  I played along happily as Radoica madly plucked from this tree and that.

An old woman crossing her own field next door saw the excite and called out to Radoica.  “I’m hear with an American!” he yelled back (I presume).  The lady, seeing my camera, insisted that I come and take her picture, which I did gladly.

Back at Radoica’s porch, he brought out another bottle of grappa.  His was made from fermented and distilled plum juice.  We talked for a while about his sons in Belgrade and about my not having a girl friend.  Soon he had to go help his wife pick more fruit (not for me, thank god).  I found myself preparing my bike to go.  I didn’t even bother trying to fit the other five pounds of fruit in my panniers.  I simply double bagged it and hung it off my handle bars: so much for my balanced steering, and retreated down the road before anyone could give me any more fruit.

In and out of Kosovo

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

I am smart and well informed.  At least, that’s what I’d have you believe.  I know what’s going on in the world and pay attention to the news.  That’s what I though until recently, anyway.

I split from the rest of FBR a week ago and dropped Netzy off in Skopje, Macedonia.  I then proceeded North, towards Belgrade.  My map showed no international borders after the Serbian/Macedonian border.  I knew I’d be going through Kosovo, and that they might actually have their own border procedures, but I didn’t think it would be an issue.

The passport control officer smiled warmly at me.  “Ah, you are American!” he said.  This was the response I had expected.  It was due mainly to American pressure that we started an air war that had stopped Serbia’s effort to evict ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in 1999.  He had buzz cut greying hair and explained half in English and half in Albanian that Serbia wouldn’t let me back in with a Kosovo stamp.  “He recommends you go along the Adriatic sea.  Why not, it’s beautiful!”  Said a translator who had come over to help.

What?  I was hoping for a simple, easy, northern route to Belgrade.   The Adriatic Sea would take me far out of the way.  I explained I was trying to meet friends.  “You can’t just go however you want to Belgrade, they might not let you through,” said the translator.  The border guard shuffled through some papers, grinning slightly with the smile of the cheerfully helpful.  Finally, the translator told me, “He recommends you go through gate 5.  He’s not sure if it will work, but you can try.”

Wonderful!  Gate 5?  What on earth is that?

I eventually figured it out.  The bit of news I had missed or overlooked earlier this year was that Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February of 2008.  “It’s a new state,” in the words of the translator.  No wonder my old map lacked a border crossing.  Kosovo has been administered by the U.N. since NATO bombed Serbia to dissuade them from ethnic cleansing the area in 1999.  You may remember something about U.S. troops being positioned there as part of  peace keeping force. Serbia opposed Kosovo’s independence, hence their hesitancy to acknowledge it by allowing anyone with Kosovo stamps into their own country.  China, Russia and many other countries do not recognize Kosovo.

The border guard gave me a slip of paper with a Kosovo stamp, which I was to hand in upon exiting Kosovo, thus avoiding problems from the Serbs.   I stood around with the border guard and the translator in the shade of the customs building awning.  “We love Americans here,” said the translator.  “Americans understand something about freedom, and it was mostly the Americans- and a few other countries as well-who helped us gain independence.”

The border guard asked me about my trip.  I listed the countries, and his eyebrows arched in appreciation for the distance I’d come.  He smiled and his eyes twinkled, then he said in English: “I am a paratrooper.  I did ten jumps by parachute, and three by glider.”  I didn’t ask him under what circumstances, but I don’t imagine he would have been so excited about training jumps.

The whole way through Kosovo I was dogged by traffic and small roads.  I met a reporter who quizzed me at length on my journey.  A gas station attendant gave me a free water.

By 7:30pm, dusk approached quickly, but I had not yet made it to the border.  Now I had to try to find a site close to an international border-never really where one wants to camp.  I pulled off on a dirt track and sniffed around for a site.  A farmer rumbled up to me on a tractor.  He shut it off as he came abreast of me.  “What are you doing here?” he gestured.  I gave him the regular speel.  I’m American, I’m biking from China to Paris and it’s getting dark and I’m looking for a place to camp so is it all right if I camp here?  He pointed to the land.  “This is my land.  If they find you here, I’ll get in trouble.” He swatted himself on the back and winced with the pain of those punished by the authorities.  I thanked him for his time and moved on.

A man and a teenager flagged me down a little way down the road.  I stopped to talk with them.  They both spoke English, though they had to scratch their heads and consult a great deal before bringing out some phrases, though they did so with great enthusiasm.  I explained what they wanted to know, which was what the heck I was doing.  “This is Serbian Kosovo,” said one, and laughed.  “We are Serbs.”  I asked how it was to be a Serb in Kosovo.  He bobbed his head and rolled his hand about levelly to indicate a so-so situation.  “Now, no war, so a little better,” he said finally.  He made as if holding a rifle and imitated a machine gun burst.  “Not so much shooting now,” he said, and laughed a big belly laugh.  Before I could ask them about camping on their land, they had disappeared into the night with their wheel barrow.

I finally found a spot, not more than a kilometer from the Kosovo checkpoint.  It was near a crick.  A dog barked shrilly and I worried I would disturb those living nearby, but I slept fitfully, and crossed the border the next day.

On the way out, many signs warn: “You are leaving Kosovo KFOR personnel turn back.”  KFOR is the U.N. force that has occupied Kosovo since the Serbs pulled out in 1999.  I saw one U.S. military base and several groups of hummers.  I waved enthusiastically, but they seemed to be going too fast to note my attempt at troop support.

Before I reached the Serbian checkpoint, I passed a convoy of parked armored Serbian military vehicles.  Soldiers stood outside, heavily armed and clutching their machine guns at the ready.

At the checkpoint the passport control office greeted me with a slightly surly attitude.  He paged carefully through my stamp pages, and joked bitterly about my being a terrorist (the beard).  “You’re coming from Kosovo?” he scoffed at the word “Kosovo”.  Soon enough I was through, out of the border region and back to the normal country and normal people.  I had tried to research this trip well before starting, but sometimes you just can’t research everything.

On the road to Beograd (Belgrade) Serbia - should arrive on 4 Aug

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

After Nakia successfully received a 2 month visa (THANK YOU Serbian consulate in Istanbul) we embarked from Edirne, Turkey to cross Bulgaria in less than 10 days (Nakia only got a 10 day visa from Bulgaria upon the second application since the first was refused for no good reason).  Although there were doubts as to if we really could cross all of Bulgaria in 10 days, we did it with a day to spare.  Excellent.  Photos of Bulgaria will come later.  My initial impression of Bulgaria is that there are few people but plenty of beautiful mountainous countryside, at times reminding Jim and Netzy of their home in Montana, and there even was a Bulgarian town named “Montana.”  Many small villages are falling apart and abandoned, perhaps as younger people have gone off not only to Bulgaria’s two big cities, Sofia and Plovdiv, but also to Western Europe in pursuit of brighter economic opportunities now that Bulgaria is a member of the European Union (EU).

Netzy, Jim’s mom, cycled with Jim for all of July (mostly in Bulgaria back and forth), and with Drew, Nakia, and I for the last 2 weeks of July.  She quite an amazing mom, and she did excellently with us, even camping daily. Autumn (Jim’s sister) and Jay (Autumn’s boyfriend) also made the journey over to join us in Europe, but unfortunately, due to Nakia’s difficulties with getting a Bulgarian visa both in Istanbul and in Edirne, most of their time was spent bicycling with Netzy and Jim in Bulgaria back to Turkey to meet Drew, Nakia, and I for 2 days in Edirne on the border before they had to head back home - an unfortunate outcome of Bulgaria’s terrible visa service in Istanbul that had us camped out at midnight in line in front of their consulate for a night only to not get in the next day, being told rudely by the guard to “try arriving earlier next time.” 

On July 27th, we entered Serbia (part of the former Yugoslavia) and are now in the middle of the country about 2 days away from its capital, Beograd, for some reason known in English as Belgrade.  In Beograd, we will be staying with our friend, Lela, whom I met in Beijing last year.  Lela has graciously invited us to stay with her and her family for an indefinite period of time while Nakia applies for the most difficult of European visas, the Schengen Visa, which is for all of Western Europe.  Please see Nakia’s earlier post, “Visa Support“ with e-mail addresses of French and Hungarian officials to e-mail to show your encouragement and endorsement of Ms Nakia Pearson and the nature of our trip to help Nakia receive a Schengen Visa. 

I have been looking forward to visiting Lela in her home country since we departed Beijing last Sept (2007) when it was still uncertain how far we would really get.  It is so great to now be so close to her home, only 2 days of biking away. 

It really is amazing when I stop and consider all of the infinite baby steps and small, seemingly insignificant events that have happened to get us all to this point right now in this now 10.5 month journey.  Time and Time again I have seen God provide for us, showering us in blessings through people we meet, people who invite us in for coffee or to sleep, those who show us the way, and through those who put money in our Er Hu case upon hearing our music on the street to buy us enough food for a few more days…  God’s provisions are most obvious when we put ourselves out there in vulnerability and uncertainty; things always work out….it is always OK…and we are again and again provided for.