Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dancing the Charleston in Romania

I crossed the Serbian border into Romania May 19. My route was Belgrade to Timisoara - one of Romania's westernmost cities and, incidentally, where their 1989 revolution started. I rode in a mini-bus with three foreign students; two from Portugal and one from Finland. They were on their way to Cluj, in the heart of Transylvania. They ended up missing their train in Timisoara, though, because we were held up at the Romanian border for about 1,5 hours waiting for the computers to kick back on. While annoying, this delay was worth it since I had the experience of listening to a Serb (our bus driver) curse at the border guards and then turn to all of us and say, "Welcome to the European Union".

This delay was notable because I had crossed seven borders in the Balkans without ever having a delay. I was almost disappointed at how slick and smooth all of the border crossings were. No half-wild canine units intimidating us, no torture and no bribes. It was surprisingly tame. Then, as soon as we got to an EU border (Romania) we entered a land of considerably higher dysfunction. Beyond the border crossings, I would say that, all in all, the Serbs, Croats, and even Bosnians, to a degree, have their country in order more than Romania.I might be a little biased though. After "getting to know the Balkans" for a month, familiarizing myself with the language and culture, it was a big shock to come to Romania, where the language is completely different and I am hard-pressed to find similarities. I'm having to start over here, which is a little tougher than when I arrived in Serbia.

I stayed a night in Recas (just outside of Timisoara) with a peace corps volunteer who was friends with Chelsea, my friend from Austin who is one year into her 27 month term as a peace corps volunteer in Romania. I met Chelsea in Bucharest on May 20 and then we came back to her town in eastern Romania - Barlad. After traveling all the way across Romania, I will say that transportation is much easier here. Compared to the Balkans, where mountains make train travel very limited and bus travel extremely bumpy, gliding along smooth tracks across a very (mostly) flat Romania for the same price as in the Balkans has been a welcome relief. The trip from Bucharest to Barlad was plagued by a broken WC that filled our whole wagon with the stench of sewage, but if you sat next to the window, you could hardly tell.

Star-Students dancing the Charleston

I've had an amazing time in Barlad so far. Chelsea teaches English to tenth graders here and I've offered my limited teaching skills in exchange for a place to stay. We came up with a lesson plan Sunday night on the train and have been implementing it to all of our classes so far this week. The lesson basically consists of handing the students a piece of paper with instructions on how to do The Charleston (the dance, youtube it if you aren't familiar). So after they figure out the vocabulary and what all the words mean, we all stand up and actually do the dance together. Hopefully, by the end of the 45 minutes, everyone has perfected the charleston, we put on some White Ghost Shivers jazz music from Austin and we partake in what is technically called "cultural exchange". If the class is particularly quick, they will teach us a traditional Romanian dance as well. Only two classes out of five have managed this though.

This was one of the most enthusiastic classes. They were a really fun bunch. 

Getting into a rural Romanian classroom has been fascinating. The most shocking thing so far has been when, a few times when Chelsea is calling role, we find out that a certain student (female) is no longer in school because she has dropped out and gotten married. This doesn't seem the least bit strange to the kids. Chelsea and I try to stifle our surprise, but it's tough to do.

It seems like each class has a few students who carry the lesson. About 10% of the class really, whole-heartedly participates while the rest sit in the back wearing aviators and playing games on the cell phones. Chelsea admits that discipline is a problem. Apparently, they've been on better behavior for me, their guest. It doesn't help that the classrooms are little echo-boxes of tile and concrete so that the slightest shuffle of papers consumes the whole room. Some carpeting in those rooms would really help the noise levels.

I was talking to Chelsea last night about my impressions of the first day of class and my general observation was that, like in most small towns, you can tell that these kids' world is pretty small. They have grown up with a very small, limited number of people surrounding them and, as long as they can master these people with charm, humor, flattery or whatever little tricks, they have won. I see an inability to think beyond the borders of Romania and sometimes even beyond the borders of Barlad. English is a very abstract idea to them - a kind of plaything and they aren't really sure how it can be applied in life. I tried my best to teach them that they needed English to talk to me since I understood no Romanian, but I don't think it really got through to them. A few kids engaged with me and responded to questions - mostly after class when their classmates were out of range. One kid came up to me and volunteered "Osama bin Laden. Shot in the head."

"Yes," I replied,"do you think it will make a difference?"

"Yes... difference... no more September 11"

Then he smiled and walked away. I guess this was a success. It was about a deep as a one on one conversation I've had with a kid here. I don't tell this little story trying to make the kids look dumb, I really just want to get across the idea that it's hard for these kids to relate to anything in English when the only time they speak it is in the classroom. In cities like Belgrade or Budapest, there are English language movies, tv shows, advertisements and all, but out here, you don't see any signs of English (there is no movie theater) and so they are victimized by a centralized education policy that says they must learn this language without them really knowing why they need to. These kids aren't the type that want to learn for the sake of learning (they are at the second tier high school - not bound for university), so their question is valid.

Their worlds are smaller because of it. These kids aren't diplomatic. They don't see much value in interacting with an American beyond making fun of their funny talk in order to impress the girl sitting next to them. This sounds too harsh now that I write it - it's not like every kid is an indolent country bumpkin. You can see in the video that some kids really did want to participate. It's just that most kids know their audience and who they need to please to make it in this little town. I am not on that short list. I'm ok with that, it's just an important thing to keep in mind when traveling around rural areas.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Made it to the Metropolis!

I made it into Belgrade, Serbia Saturday afternoon after a 10 hour bus ride from Podgorica, Montenegro that left first thing Saturday morning. I had ended up staying up all night in Podgorica. When I noticed the sun coming up as me and my (British) host were in the middle of a heated debate over US world supremacy and China and all that type of stuff, I figured that I may as well get a headstart on my trip to Belgrade and so made my way to the bus station. The sun was already fairly high in the sky bt 630am and I was completely blinded by it. The central European time zone borders go WAAAAYYY too far to the east. I guess that's just another example of these ex-commie states wanting to be more like the west....

The last time I posted was Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzogovina - in other words, three countries ago - four countries ago if you count the 15 minutes I spent driving through the little sliver of Bosnia along the coast that cuts Croatia in two. From Sarajevo, I took the train further south to Mostar, then to Dubrovnik, Croatia along the coast. Then to Kotor, Montenegro, then Podgorica, then Belgrade. It'd be ideal if I could add a little map to the side of my blog that shows my route. Does anybody know how to do that?

I've been trying to avoid being a tourist this past week and trying to get a feel for real life, but the Dalmatian coast is not a good place to do this. Not that I'm complaining. A friend of my host in Zagreb was kind enough to put me up in his five star hotel in Dubrovnik for two nights - he even gave me a seaside view! IMPORTANNE RESORT, people! If you ever go to Dubrovnik or are thinking about a good place to go for a summer trip, I highly recommend Importanne Resort in Dubrovnik, Croatia. See the pictures I added to my flickr stream for some visuals.

I used my time in Dubrovnik to catch my breath a little. The hotel was a few kilometers outside of town and was nice and quiet -  a perfect place to decompress after spending about 10 straight days in the city. Mixing up city life with more rural life is very important. I guess I can hardly call Importanne Resort rural though... but you know what I mean.

From Dubrovnik, I took the bus along the coast to Montenegro - The Bay of Kotor. This place is amazing! The largest fjord on the meditteranean. Kotor is located at the very southeastern most tip and is the biggest town on the fjord. It is also the home of the oldest and most well preserved walled town and fort on the fjord - an example of how their strategic location at the end of the fjord appears to have helped them over the years. I actually got to stay with a host in the old town, behind the walls and everything. It's amazing how you can really feel the effect of the walls. Passing from "new Kotor" to "old Kotor" is full of contrast. Inside the walls, you don't hear any cars (they aren't allowed in the old town, and probably wouldn't fit, anyways) nothing is more than about a 5 minute walk away. I got a good taste of the village life there.

View from our fishing spot in Kotor Bay

However, I can also appreciate modern amenities now. My host was great in Kotor, but his apartment, to be honest, sucked. He was in a tiny basement flat where the water would spontaneously shut off and his cat would take morning shits in the shower. He was also hosting four of us couchsurfers, which was about 3 more than he had space for. I ended up sharing a bed with two other people one night, sleeping shortways across the bed to make space. I value this experience as insight into the life of poverty in a tiny, walled, old Adriatic town. It was a great time, though, and Micky, our host, was very gracious. He took us fishing and "octopus hunting" at this beautiful spot along the fjord.

View of Kotor from the fortress

Even though everyone told me not to go to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, because "there was nothing to see there", it was perhaps my favorite city since Sarajevo. It was the perfect example of how you shouldn't just blindly follow Lonely Planet and, that if you have someone to show you around, you can have a great time anywhere. In this case, couchsurfing came through again. I stayed with a Brit teaching english there and we met up with two other couchsurfers at a bar and had a great night. In the process, I learned a lot about Podgorica, too. Sure, it's not the most tourist friendly town. No sections of the original wall left, no Austro-Hungarian era administrative buildings or old Ottoman markets left. Instead, Podgorica sits in a plain in southeastern Montenegro that gets invaded and destroyed about every fifty years, according to my host. This allows the city to reinvent itself about twice a century, making it much more modern and less distinctive. But, as I learned in Podgorica, "distinction" and tourist attractions do not necessarily make for a livable city. Podgorica seemed very livable to me. Small town, but a capital so there were things going on and young people and liveliness. Podgorica was free of the single file lines of middle age American tourists shuffling through narrow streets complaining about all the walking and wondering when was their next meal.

Blankets for Pilgrims to Ostrog (Orthodox monestary near Podgorica)
And now I'm in Belgrade. The capital of former Yugoslavia and my last checkpoint during my stay in former Yugoslavia. It has been cool to see all the provinces of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro first before coming to see the center of it all. I think being able to contrast Belgrade with its surroundings has allowed me to appreciate the city more. You can see how it really is like a London, Paris or Berlin for Southeast Europe. Compared to the rest of the cities in the neighborhood, it's clear that Belgrade is the most metropolitan and "capitalesque" of them all.

Friday I take off for Romania, where I'll meet up with a friend from Austin who is doing peace corps in eastern Romania - a little town called Barlad. I'll be sure to update from there.

Friday, May 6, 2011

In the Heart of the Balkans

I am writing this post from Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzogovina, which is kind of weird, since as a kid, I remember the name ˝Sarajevo˝ being associated with bombings or sniper shootings or some horrible thing. These days, Sarajevo is a thriving city... well, it at least looks thriving to ME. According to some ethnic groups in the area (i.e. Serbs) there is a dire shortage of their own people here, having been kicked out in the early 1990s... but that's going down a very complicated road that you can read about on Wikipedia or something. This is about MY trip to Sarajevo - not a history of who has ruled and conquered this place over the centuries.

I got into Sarajevo Wednesday night after a stunning, five hour bus ride from Banja Luka in the north. Bosnia's roadways aren't very developed, which makes it all the more adventurous. The two lane road we took from Banja Luka hugged the side of a cliff that plunged down into first the Vrbas and then the Bosna river, which starts just a few miles south of Sarajevo. 

We got in at about 9pm and, taking the advice of a local I had met on the bus, I ventured into the suburbs of Sarajevo with him looking for a cheap hotel. (I've been couchsurfing or staying with friends ever since Iceland, but the couchsurfers of Sarajevo don't seem to be as gracious as their fellow countrymen.) He dropped me off in front of this place called ˝Banana City˝- probably the sketchiest hotel I have ever seen in my life. Even if the lights HAD been on, I wouldn't have tried it. So, with night progressing, I found my way back to the tram and made my way into the city and crashed at the first decent looking place I found. It was the most expensive night of the trip, but whatever, I had deserved it after making it through western Europe for a month on an average $40 a day!

I spent about an hour or so on Thursday just poking around the city. This place is way cool - it's the first city I've been in so far where I feel like I'm really in the east. There are mosques EVERYWHERE and you can hear calls to prayer throughout the day (although I haven't been woken up by one yet) and the center of old town feels almost like... Africa or the Middle East or something. I'm not sure because I've never been to either. All the buildings are one story and made up of shop fronts. These days, they are all tourist shops, restaurants or cafes, but the low buildings and narrow streets feel much older than the standard boulevards and 5 story buildings or western Europe. Plus, the main street is being renovated now, so it's just dust and rocks right now, with no signs of any work going on to improve it soon. The uneven surface and dust rising from pedestrians gives the street an even older feel. Judging by other streets, they'll put down concrete tiles eventually, but I think they should just keep it how it is. 

Mosque to the right, shops to the left

I've spent most of the time walking around the hills of Sarajevo, from where Serbian forces held the city siege between 1992 and 1995. Nobody could really tell me about hiking trails, so both Thursday and today (Friday) I just started heading up hill and eventually found streets and dirt roads and goat paths to my summits. I have been nervous both days about landmines. On Thursday, when I climbed the southern hills, I ran into a woman herding her goats through the woods and was just waiting for her or one of her herd to get blown to smithereens, but she seemed pretty confident in her footsteps. About a mile later, I saw a big sign advertising a Greek initiative to clear the area of landmines. I guess they're finished?

Today (Friday) I climbed up Treboviča, the mountain to the north of Sarajevo. Go check out my Flickr page - I just added a bunch more pictures.  It took me about seven hours and was about 16 miles as far as I can calculate. This trip was much more exciting. About half way up the mountain, I took a road up about a mile that turned out to be a private drive. D'oh. But I ˝talked" to a workman there and figured out a way to get further up via a little footpath. This path quickly faded out though, but I happened upon a lumberjack who had lived in Augsburg, Germany for a few years, so he was able to help me get further up to where his colleague was working who then, in limited Italian, showed me the trail that took me all the way to the top. Sheesh!

Once I got to the top, I felt like I had really earned it - like I had had an adventure. And the predictable way back home was not nearly as exciting, but was much quicker, which my stomach was happy about.

It's amazing how quickly the city disappears out here. Sarajevo is a big place, and very metropolitan, but after walking about 30-45 minutes in either direction, you start finding goat herders, lumberjacks and the roads turn to dirt. It makes the city even more remarkable, because you realize that it's surrounded by a wilderness that constitutes most of the rest of the country that Sarajevo is supposed to govern.