Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Technically possible, just not very practical

Looking at a map, it is hard to tell a few things- are there places where the river is too shallow or too deep? Are there natural or un-natural barriers? Is the river slow or fast moving? Looking at the map and even getting in the river, we found that it is technically possible to go from near Peshkopi to Kukes (about 60km) but just not in less than about three days. This was a problem only because we thought that we might be able to get there a lot faster and we wanted to bring as little stuff with us as possible (one backpack for four people).

The beginning was pretty great. It was Dylan, Leslie and this German guy Johan that's doing forestry research here and me. The river was really perfect for tubing- not too deep, but deep
enough that you didn't get stuck too often. And our packing system was pretty ingenious- we put a tarp on the bottom of an extra tube and tied Dylan's backpack into it, then one of us held on to the "raft." It took a while to get used to it and we capsized twice (and got ourselves stuck in a few trees), but by the end of the day we had all pretty much gotten the whole steering and paddling to stay in the middle of the river down. We found some villagers that told us the bad news- we were not nearly as far along as we wanted to be- only about 20km away from where we had started.

We made camp on the side of the river and it was a great spot. Sandy, but with a grassy area nearby and lots of trees (so lots of firewood) and close to the road. It would have been perfect if we had a tent (or sleeping bags) but we had tried to pack so light that we were really not ready. We also didn't really have enough food. We got a fire going and were fine until we tried to sleep- then we found how cold and uncomfortable it really was. There was a hay pile nearby and in the middle of the night we got the idea to bring over some hay to sleep on- that made it a little bit better, but not really. Basically we were freezing, even with the fire going all night (which meant we got no sleep).

In the morning we were cold and tired and decided that the last thing we wanted to do was get back in the water, so (for better or worse, who knows) we deflated the tubes and started to walk, hoping that we might find a car going our way (which really was either way, cause we were less than half-way and I would've gone back to Peshk if there had been a car). I think we walked nearly 20km overall, on almost no food. We stopped twice to get water at people's houses and Leslie and I got a short ride from two guys going to a wedding. After the guys caught up, we kept walking . . . Finally around 4 we got picked up by another car from the wedding and they took us the rest of the way into Kukes (about another 20km). This was lucky, because I think that we were all basically at a breaking point- we had had almost no food all day (the fact that it was berry season really saved us) and it was still a ways into town. We were lucky to find a ride, although we would have gotten there eventually- at this point we had already asked the Kukes PCVs to look for someone to come pick us up. But anyway, after a few bumps on the road (including a flat tire!) we got into town ate two dinners (to make up for all the berry eating) and spent the night there, exhausted, but happy in our attempt (at least I was). Things I learned- it is possible to get to Kukes by river, but it will take you three days and you really need to pack well because there is NOTHING out there (we saw more donkey carts than cars, no surprise).

The best thing about this trip, even though it didn't end up exactly as expected, was that we did it! Most of the Albanians that we told about the trip told us that we were crazy. Maybe we were, but we saw something that no one had ever tried before and decided to try it. We had to walk a lot, slept on a hay pile, got bitten by ants and were really hungry, but we survived and actually had a really great time. It was kind of like going to Antarctica or the Moon- people tell you that you're crazy and it's not possible, but you will never know that it's impossilbe until you try . . .

Monday, August 24, 2009

Probably the Best City in the World

Probably the best City in the world. This is (no joke) the motto of Brasov, a town in the Transylvania region of Romania. It is on every umbrella at all the cafes and restaurants downtown. Seriously, I can just imagine someone coming up with that, "Well, we haven't been to every other city in the world, so we can't really say 'The best city in the world, period', but we've been a lot of places and none of them were as good as here, so we can say 'Probably the best city in the world' until someone proves us wrong . . .

Anyway, Brasov is a pretty cool place, but I don't know if I was there long enough to really be sure of it's supremacy over every other place that I've been (I'm particularly partial to Prague myself, but that's just me . . . ). The town center is full of beautiful buildings and there is a slightly out of place giant Hollywood-esque sign on the side of the hill (just in case you forgot where you were?).
We actually didn't spend too much time in Brasov itself (except Amanda who decided that castles were not her thing and had an adventure with a red scooter . . . ) rather we used it as a base to see a bit more of the region and the castles that this part of Romania is famous for. The fairy tale tourets of Bran Castle harken back to princesses as much as Dracula and I'm all in favor of the former. The only mention of the famous literary biter was in an upstairs room talking about how the castle actually had nothing to do with the historical Vlad Tepes or the fictional Dracula at all except that maybe Bram Stoker may have based his description of Dracula's castle on Bran. What the castle did have, however was a lot of information about the Romanian royal family (who had most recently used it as a country home) and some pretty great views.

The next day, on our way back to Bucarest, we stopped in Sinai and explored another fantastic castle- this one much more royal palace than quaint country home. It seemed that every room we went into was more lavishly decorated than the one before (and it's no wonder that they charged a whole lot extra to take pictures!). Based soley on this and the Parliment I would have to say that the Romanians are skilled interior decorators . . . they take their palaces seriously!

Leaving Romania, we had a truly unpleaseant train ride to Sofia (lights on all night, loud, cold, uncomfortable seats . . . ) and arrived in Bulgaria to a rainy day. We had planned to spend the day exploring Sofia, but after the bad train ride and the rain, we decided to get the earliest possible oppourtunity back to Macedonia. As we crossed this last border, I realized that in just under two weeks I had completly crossed through Bulgaria three times (and had the 6 passport stamps to prove it) without stopping for more than a quick meal. I guess I've technically been to Bulgaria now but I think I might have to go back as I didn't actually see a thing.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Overnight train and Bucharest in a hurry

After doing everything possible in Istanbul (ok, not really, but everything that was possible to do in four days) we hopped on an overnight train to Bucharest, Romania. After a very short (ha ha!) 20 hours on train and two more border crossings (across Bulgaria again) we arrived in Bucharest in the evening. The next morning we got an early start since we only had one day planned to see the Romanian capital. We were told by our hostel that to see the Parliament Palace we would need an appointment and they were kind enough to call for us. The earliest appointment available was apparently noon, so we decided to head over to the recommended Village Museum first. I probably could have stayed at the Village Museum for days. A really unique concept, starting in 1936, they moved typical houses from villages in different regions of the country or rebuilt replicas of the houses. The houses are filled with traditional clothing and furniture and there is staff that makes traditional crafts with kids who come (basically a living history museum) that you could then buy from the artisans. I really wanted to stay all day and make dolls and clay pots with the summer camp kids, but unfortunately we had an appointment to make at the Parliament. The Parliament building happens to be across town from the other museum and we only gave ourselves about an hour to get there. Even taking the metro (oh, metro! oh, advanced transportation!) we had to walk quite a ways (or run) because the metro stop was not really close to the entrance. Even with running we were late for our appointment, but it turns out that it didn’t really matter because there was a tour that we could join leaving at 12:30 . . . oh, well, we got our aerobic exercise for the day.

The Parliament building was kind of crazy. It is the biggest (not tallest) building in Europe, the second biggest in the world (after the Pentagon). It cost something like 6 billion dollars to build, but no one really knows how much it cost because they didn’t really keep track. Everything inside was made in Romania, including the most ridiculous woodwork, marble work, chandeliers and carpets that I’ve even seen. It was probably the most decadent building that I’ve ever seen. After a (rushed) tour we headed back to the hostel to pick up our stuff and get the afternoon train to Brasov. Again we rushed and barely caught the crowded (hot) train. When I found my seat and finally stopped rushing, I realized that I had left my pocket knife behind at the Parliament building (apparently you can't take a knife into public buildings . . .who knew?). But winning the award for the nicest person I have ever travelled with, my new friend Melissa gifted me her barely used leatherman tool to replace my lost knife since she is leaving PC in a few months and I have another year to go (plus adventures after). Thanks Melissa!

Up next: Transylvania- more than just Dracula!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Kernel Panic

For some reason, kernel panic sounds like such a funny thing to be wrong with my computer. Like, "hey how are your kernels doing?" "they're going CRAZY, it's a PANIC!"

In reality, a kernel panic is a pretty serious problem, making my computer basically unusable for the moment (as in I can't turn it on). Luckily, I have a great dad who knows a thing or two about panicky kernels and is sending me the tools to unpanic them. But in the meantime, I am only able to get online at the office, only occasionally and several things are trapped on my computer (like written blog posts and pictures), so I will be a little bit behind in updating here for a while.

In completely unrelated but coincidental news, the same day that my kernel panicked, my camera panicked too. Hopefully, the pictures from Romania and my crazy tubing trip can be saved . . . relying on my great dad for that too . . .

Friday, August 14, 2009

Making Friends and Taking Names

We’ve decided that the men of Istanbul must go to some sort of school to learn how to be smooth talkers. With lines like “I speak body language” and “How can I rip you off today” (to make us laugh) followed by “I wish I were a fish so that I could swim away in your eyes,” it’s no surprise that I spent way to much money . . . but also had some good times and made some fun friends. The area we were staying in is full of tourists and full of guys trying to convince you to eat at his restaurant or shop in his store. The touts of Istanbul are rarely rude, but certainly persistent and we were convinced by a few to actually stop. We also saw all the touristy attractions (Blue Mosque wins for beauty, Aya Sofia wins for awe inspiring impressiveness), took a boat trip on the Bosporus and the ferry over to Asia (where it seems like a lot of actual Turks live and the vying for our dollar basically stopped). We spent our last day at the Topaki Pallace- I’m in love with the tiles there- and the Grand Bazaar. The bazaar was more . . . polished than I was expecting- more like shopping mall than middle eastern souk, but I still bought a few scarves, some earrings and a ceramic bowl. While leaving Istanbul, I was sad to go. The food was fantastic- don’t tell the Albanians, but Turkish food is like what I think Albanian food should be like. Like Albanian food cooked better and with more flavor . . . I think that Istanbul (and the rest of Turkey) is someplace that I can see myself going to again . . . someday . . .