My Own Amazing Race

Trip Start Aug 09, 2009
Trip End Oct 23, 2009

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Flag of Montenegro  ,
Monday, September 7, 2009

The past few days have been some sort of adrenaline fueled Amazing Race episode trying to get from Lake Ohrid to Sarajevo via all points in between.  So I lingered a little too long at Lake Ohrid (well worth it), and I needed to make up the time to eventually get to Osijek for my 5 Euro Ryanair flight out of the Balkans.  The train from Sarajevo to Poland would have let me stay but the cheapest ticket is over $300 for a 26 hour ride from hell.  No thanks, if I am going to have an experience from hell, I am not paying more than 5 Euros like on Ryanair. 

I already told you about the overnight bus ride from Macedonia to Albania where we had no idea if it would even show up.  After being dumped unceremoniously into a mud parking lot on the outskirts of downtown Tirana, I walked around for a little bit. Tirana is like stepping back in a time capsule.  Since the people were cut off from the world for decades by the Dear Leader Hohxa they are just absolutely fascinated by outsiders.  This is a country where private citizens have only been driving cars 15 years (and it shows).  Albanians are some of the nicest and most honest people I have come across in all my travels, too.  Being isolated from the world allowed them to remain unaffected by all that ails us.  Hopefully they won't adopt our ways too soon.

I said goodbye to my two new friends from the hostel and with little to hold my interest in Tirana, pressed on to Shkodra.  Trusting my gut was the only way I knew to get there so I set off praying I wouldn't end up destitute in the bowels of Albania with no way out.  Finding the bus to Shkodra or someone who speaks English early on a Sunday is like finding a needle in a haystack, but guess what, I somehow found both needles within twenty minutes.  I would walk up to random people and ask, "Shkodra?"  My pleas for help would solicit a sympathetic look most of the time but alas no help.  Other times scarf clad grannies would veer away from this crazy looking American with a bag slung over his shoulder with a look of fear and horror on their craggy toothless faces.  Thing is in Tirana the "bus stops" are constantly changing locations so only taxi drivers and locals in the know can point the unitiated in the right direction.

I finally did find that one needle in the haystack, and a guy about my age actually walked me four blocks to where the bus was hidden down a side street.  Albanian culture is all about helping visitors I came to find out later and that is such a welcome change from back home.  Can you imagine some luggage toting, non English speaking foreigner walking up to someone at the Five Points MARTA station and asking where something is?  I can see the scene now.  And why the need to constantly change pick up points for people desiring egress from this muddy sprawl? 

I paid my $3 for the hour and a half ride to Shkodra and was praying that a Furgon would magically appear there to carry me across the border into Ulcinj, Montenegro.  A Furgon is like a collectivo in Latin America...a van that leaves when it fills up to the driver's satisfaction.  That usually means a long wait until the cramped aluminum box has people hanging out the windows and sitting on the floor. 

This chain smoking Tony Soprano look alike maneuvered our bus through beat up streets filled with either Mercedes or donkey carts.  There doesn't seem to be much of a middle ground in terms of private transportation.  On this bus we had a string of garlic and Sylvester the Cat hanging from the window instead of Jesus and french fries.   One scene that repeated itself over and over starting at 6am was wedding processions of Mercedes decorated for the event.  And why is it that the bus drivers everywhere get to smoke?  I am just glad that no smoking on board buses is the one rule the passengers actually do follow.

Of course nothing in this part of the world is simple and upon arriving in Shokodra I learned that the next furgon or bus to Ulcinj would be about six hours later.  I glanced around the run down town and decided I needed out fast, preferably twenty minutes ago.  I was needing same day service to Podgorica after Ulcinj and then from Podgorica to Sarajevo.  Impossible for sure since I couldnt even get the seas to part enough for a quick crossing to Ulcinj.   My travel plans were imploding quickly since I wouldn't be in Podgorica until after dark and I had no idea if any buses ran overnight to Sarajevo. 

The conductor from the bus I just got off was a kid about 12 years old and he spoke pretty decent English.  He found a taxi driver who would drive me to Ulcinj for 20 Euros.  I said oh hell no...for that kind of money he will drive me all the way to Podgorica.  For an additional five Euros I was on my way in a early 1990s off white Mercedes 190 for the hour and a half drive to Europe's ugliest capital.   I couldn't wait.  

The first hour or so was nothing but smooth sailing over choppy roads until the border at Montenegro where a guard had some beef with the Mercedes.  A heated debate was followed by lots of opening and closing of the trunk where my bag was.  I just sat there on my sticky vinyl seat wondering if I should make a break for it.  I was already making plans of how I would just have to hitchhike to somewhere, anywhere, just somewhere further up the road preferably over the border.  And probably without my bag.  I had a stick of deordorant and some water in my backpack so what more could anyone need if the other bag disappears?

After ten minutes of heated debate in a language foreign to me, the taxi driver got in and said, "Ulcinj, yes.  Podgorica, no.  Euro, yes! Pogorica, Yes!  Yes!  Yes!" He smiled, put his thumb up, and looked like he had won the lottery.  That was the extent of his English but that "Podgorica Yes" was all I need to hear. Evidently a few Euros changed hands as a bribe to let this taxi go all the way to the capital from Ulcinj.  My second transport crisis of the morning was miraculously averted and we eventually reached the bus terminal in downtown P-town.  What a beauty that grey concrete shrine to Stalinist architecture was.  What only hours before was just an elusive concept was now staring me full on in its grey flesh.

Half my battle was won since all that separated me from Sarajevo was one final busride.  All the angst about getting to Podgorica was for naught I soon discovered while trying to decipher the bus schedule.  A night bus to Sarajevo does indeed run and I was left with 11 hours to kill in this Garden of Eden so I put my bag in storage and dove right in.  My dive was more like an abrupt belly flop, and I got so many strange looks from the locals since I am sure this is no mecca for tourists. 

It was so ugly, so different, and just so backwards that I really would have missed out on that great experience had I not made it here in my own private Benz.  Now how many people can say they rolled into such a craphole city in unairconditoned, cracked windshield, four bad tires, beat up old Benz style?  That was seriously the finest taxi ride I have ever taken anywhere

Podgorica did nothing to hold my attention more than about thirty minutes so I bought a bus ticket to Kotor on the Adriatic coast to kill some more time.  That bus strained to climb up the tall mountains that surround P-Town, and an hour and a half later my jaw dropped as we came around a bend and the coastline was a few thousand feet below.  Never have I seen anything so pretty in my European travels, and I will just let the pictures speak for themselves. 

Kotor is an ancienct walled city built between 8 AD and the 18th Century right on an inlet from the Adriatic Sea.  I crossed a short drawbridge to the city walls, walked inside one of the gates and was treated to narrow marble paved alleys and tall buildings with tile roofs.  Just amazing and again I will let the pics speak for themselves.  A medieval fortress high above town got my attention and of course I am always game for a climb no matter how hot or sunny.  A liter and a half of water later I was a few thousand feet above Kotor and the views of the bay and mountains made every drop of sweat worth it.  Again, I will go to any lengths to bring you only the best from my travels. 

Back in town I bought some water and gave myself a quick birdbath behind the bus station since I still had a long way to go before Sarajevo and a real shower. A 20 minute busride brought me a little further up the coast to Budva, another coastal beauty.  Its walled city is directly on the Adriatic but not as quaint or big as Kotor's.  Unlike Kotor, this much quieter old town is priced for tourists rather than locals and the surrounding city is a highrise strip of hotels and condos serving mostly Russians and Serbians.  It was much too touristy (and expensive as a result) for my tastes.  Kotor with its simple beauty is more my speed.

Watching Russians like Boris and his girlfriend Svetlana in her leopard print tops, tight white pants with visible black thong and high heels parade around Budva got old after a while.  Picture Peg Bundy with long blonde hair and you have young Russian women on vacation.  Who knew Peg was ahead of her time with what she wore back then?  And who wants to watch noveau riche Eurotrash anyway?

So all those Peg Bundy copycats were enough of an impetus to get me moving again so I bought a bus ticket back to Europe's ugliest capital which has grown on me the more I walk around it.   It may be butt ugly to us, but I am sure it is beautiful to the 136,000 who live there.  They go to great lengths to keep those crumbling buildings standing so it just goes to show that home can be anywhere you make it.

I did make it back in time for my overnight bus on to Sarajevo, and I will let you know what I find in Bosnia and Hercegovina and its country in a country Republika Srpska.  Srpska thinks it is a country but isn't recognized by anyone.  The name means Serbian Republic, not to be confused with the real Serbia.

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