The amount of hair on my face has played a large role on this trip. It was a bit of a surprise, but at the same time, I can understand, because for a long time, I looked like an asshole:
In the Balkans, I looked like a lunatic:
In small towns everywhere, there has been very little variation in the way people dress and present themselves, but even in big cities, the reactions I ellicited were often extreme. With a big beard, it was really absurd. Cafes full of people would suddenly fall silent as I passed, and entire tables would turn to stare at me unabashedly. Old Italian ladies would literally stumble when they turned the corner and saw me there, and would then look at me like I was a convicted rapist and hurry past. These were not isolated incidents - this was an everyday reality. It was ridiculous. I was called Osama bin Laden on a regular basis, especially after his death was announced. In places where I expected some people to have beards, like Northern Albania or Kosovo, I found none. Indeed, it was something of a symbol there, and I got a lot of confused looks. The quote that titles this blog entry comes from Tush, a guy we met in Bajram Curri in Albania. With the moustache, surprisingly, I actually got fewer looks, though I think it was just because people didn't notice as immediately. In most cases, I would wave, say hello in whatever language was appropriate, or perform some other salutory gesture, and usually the people would snap out of their shocked state and return my greeting. Sometimes they would just stare open-mouthed. In any case, by the time we arrived in Istanbul, I was pretty tired of being a zoo exhibit all the time, and cut a combined total of 14 inches of 'stache off of my face. I got a haircut, too, and did laundry for the first time since Macedonia, and was born again.
There was a sheep with a bell wandering somewhere. There were birds singing while the streams met and decided to be a river. The sun rose weakly and intimidated, afraid of the clouds at dawn. It blushed and went away.
Jaco is awake, I gather. I look over from my rock on the river, watching the bugs no more I hear Jaco frantically unzipping zippers. One. Sleeping bag. Two. Tent. Three. Rainfly. He doesn't even look my way as he rushes to his panniers. I am watching him now. He is gunning through his panniers.
'I left my passport at the hostel'.
I guess we're not going to Bulgaria today.
And it rained. We rode to the nearest town, where we planned for Jaco to take a bus to Skopje, which we had left the day before, while I would wait for him in the town, Kriva Palanka.
Harmoniously, everything worked out and within minutes of finding an ATM in Kriva Palanka Jaco was on the bus and I was left alone at the bus station with the two fully loaded bikes, no cash (we had spent all our Macedonian denar the day before, thinking we would be arriving in Bulgaria, which was 10km away), no plans, and a lot of time. It stopped raining.
I ate the rest of my Kosovar peanuts, and changed into my jeans, which have still not been washed as I write this. Then the children began to circle.
The manager at the bus station began to take up a curiosity, and stared at me in confusion.
More children came.
'portugalska to kina'
The morning manager, whose name unfortunately I cannot remember, pointed to a cafe overlooking the bus station.
I pointed to the bikes, pointed to my eyes.
'Nema pirata, [macedonian]'
Glory! There are no bike pirates in Kriva Palanka! Pirate! The word I had been searching for for months! Pirate! Indo-European for thief, thievery, stealing! Corsairs, privateers, buccaneers! None of them here in the mountains.
'Nema denara, imam bankomat?'
And so I was accompanied by Damian to the ATM. I withdrew some denars, and climbed up to the balcony cafe, with Damian and Mary, my friends. Despite my insistence, they didn't want anything, expressing themselves in English. One macchiato, then two. A drawing of the bus station. Goodbye Damian and Mary. A third macchiato!
Damian came back. And left. And came back again. We went down to my bike to play chess. Damian made up his own rules. His friends came, and they broke the fence. They got yelled at by Boro. It is raining now. Goodbye Damian.
I sat under the awning for awhile, amused at my new friends. I hadn't played chess with ten year olds who made up their own rules in three months. Before that though, I had played a lot of chess with ten year olds who made up their own rules.
Damian is back!
'I'm mad at my friend, he hit me,'
Yes. They had gotten into a tussle. Damian's face was red, and he had been crying. I gave him a baseball card. Billy Ripken, Baltimore. He asked me to autograph it. Nathan Roter.
I am freezing. Goodbye Damian, do what your mother tells you.
Hello Boro. Boro was the new bus station manager, working the afternoon shift. He had a fire in his office, and he welcomed me in. In my improving Macedonian, we passed the hours. Damian, profesor, came in and stayed for 15 minutes at a time, then would leave for 5 minutes, every time sorrowful as if it were the last time that we would see each other.
In the warmth Boro told me about Macedonian monasteries, and tasty fish from the mountains.
It is 6pm. Where is Jaco? The bus from Skopje was due at 6. Boro was anxious and confused as well. Where is the bus? It was raining hard now. Boro angrily got on the phone.
'defekt, sedam ili osum' he told me and pointed to his watch.
Late Jaco. Defekt bus Jaco.
Jaco arrives from the rain. Boro, Damian and I were discussing sleeping options for the night.
'Manastir Sveti Joakim!' said Boro with a touch of his thumb and forefinger to his pursed lips.
Rain coat, rain pants, low gears, and the climb to the monastery. 2 kilometers later we were eating sausage, ajvar, fresh cheese and fresh yogurt from the monastery with homemade rakija and wine with Aleksander, an aspiring priest and head of the monastery.
Aleksander did not know Boro, nor did he know Damian. He knew much about hospitality, and Jaco and I were glad to be warm and among friends in the mountains in Macedonia. Bulgaria would have to wait til the morning, and the rain fell while we dreamed of eagles.
In other news, we are in Istanbul, my rack broke and has been replaced by Paris's newest Delmer, Adrian C. Big thanks Adrian! By some counts, Istanbul is the end of the European continent. Boy, to have ridden across two continents! Jaco bought a guitar here, our bikes are clean and ready for the long lovely ascent of the highest mountains in the world.