Into Ukraine

Riding north from Constanta was nice and varied. Leaving the tourist area behind, I passed through an area of refineries, factories, and exceptionally vicious dogs. Then there were wheat fields to the horizon on both sides for miles. I camped, with permission, among some trees at a quarry; at sunset two shepherds, two dogs and 500 sheep passed my campsite. Next day, hills, from the tops of which I could see the Black Sea to the east, and the Danube River Delta to the northeast.

The delta is huge, unique in Europe, and fascinating. It has more than thirty towns and villages, accessible only by boat, some prosperous fishing towns, some with a history of smuggling and piracy. Nobody I met had ever been there. The inhabitants have a reputation for cunning and wildness. I considered hiring a boat to investigate, but no such opportunity came up.

In Tulcea I enjoyed a salad in a sunny cafe while I uploaded my latest post. Before leaving, I checked my e-mail one more time and found that my sister Martha had passed away during the night. I sent some family e-mails and pedaled toward Ukraine with memories flooding my mind, some of them more than fifty years old. Martha had a challenging life filled with disappointments, yet she brought smiles and laughter to everyone, every time. Mom and Dad must be happy to see her.

I was roused from my reverie by Julian, a wonderfully looney marathon runner on a training run who flagged me down. He is a regular Borat; I wish I had recorded the directions he gave to his house. His fractured English made me laugh every time he spoke.

His may be the poorest household I have visited yet. His mother has every inch of the small yard under cultivation and seven chickens. I arrived before he finished his run and, just as he told me, she provided me with a stool to sit on and a small glass of wine. Julian returned with a small fish, assuring me that it would fill all three stomachs to the very top. And with some scallions and lettuce from the garden, some hard boiled eggs, and a loaf of bread from my saddlebag, it did.

With village water on tap in the yard but no plumbing, a reed-thatched roof, and one-bulb-per-room electric service, they live somehow with almost no income (and almost no teeth). Julian told me that February was particularly hard. Wood for heating is scavenged from the nearby hills; most of their income goes to propane (for the small range), electricity, flour and sugar. My tea in the morning was from garden herbs.

Julian hitch-hikes or rides freight trains to Eastern European cities to compete in marathons, begging entry fees from better-off runners and wearing cast-off shoes and running shorts. Mom disapproves and balks at the required food intake. In the morning I pretended to need yoghurt and brought back $15 worth of groceries (a hefty couple of sacks here). It was awkward for a few minutes but we got over it.

Leaving Romania involved a ferry across the Danube, lunch on a park bench with some teenagers in beautiful Galati, and a windy ride across an industrial wasteland to the Moldovan border for a routine crossing. Thirty minutes later I was at the Ukrainian border–I rode through Moldova without ever putting a foot down.

Ukranian customs was serious. A big staff in a complex of buildings was searching cars and trucks. For the first time so far I was delayed with questions and a partial search of my luggage. Only the captain spoke English. They finally loosened up when he asked why I was traveling alone. I said, “Why not?” and he said, “It’s dangerous, you could have trouble.” When I grinned and said, “I LIKE trouble!” he burst out laughing and translated, and they all laughed. They waved me through saying, “Goodbye, crazy American.”

It was immediately apparent that I was in a different land. The roads are crumbling, the cars and trucks are thirty years old, the busses and trolleys even older. Old motorcycles with sidecars were in use in many towns. Crews of thirty men and women were painting the curbs and trees. (In Eastern Europe, for some reason, every roadside tree and utility pole is painted white up to waist height, and most people do the same to the trees in their yards.) People are friendly, but the language barrier is large. The dogs are even more enthusiastic than in Romania. I’ve entered Ukraine in a very rural, frontier area, so my observations so far probably don’t apply to the whole country. I’ve been told that Odessa is modern and sophisticated.

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Why? I don’t know.

I found a very inexpensive room in a very nice, clean hotel from another era. After a good bath I went down to the dining room, where half the tables were full of men. I sat waiting for a waiter, and after a while a man from one of the tables came and poured me a glass of wine (from a plastic spring water bottle, indicating home-made). Salut! From their own tables, they brought me a couple of fried fish, a basket of bread, and some cabbage salad. A young man with some English explained, with difficulty, that no waiter would come. They were a work crew boarding at the hotel for a month, and the kitchen was closed.

They were a crew of engineers, electricians, drivers and crane operators who install 300-ton (!!) power station gear all over the world. Sasha was the oldest, the shortest, and obviously the boss—you could just tell from his face. I scored big points with this crew by (A) opening beers with a lighter, (B) lighting Peter’s cigarette, (C) downing my vodka in one go, (D) peeling my tangerine in one piece, (E) calling Slava a fucking lightweight when he said he had to go to bed at 2:00AM. What a great bunch of guys.

They made me promise to stay another night (maybe), and visit them in Odessa (definitely). We had only Illya for translation, not very good, so we used google translate a lot. But the alphabet is different so we had to change the language setting on my phone back and forth repeatedly. I had to rely on Illya to return it to English and the last time he messed it up so bad it crashed. It came back to life exactly as it was out of the box—no apps, contacts, music, nothing. I finally got everything back from the cloud but the music, a couple of albums I purchased last week, so long ago it seems like a year. Sasha the boss fell in love with me and is trying to find a reason to hire me.

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Sasha

Slava brought out a laptop and showed me the company web site. Unbelievable. They have a diesel rig with 60 wheels, and a crane that lifts 500 tons. I think they are the dudes of Ukraine, and they think I’m a heroic figure of historic proportions. The innkeeper had to scold us for noise thee times. Incredibly good times. Those poor bastards had to work at 7:00.

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Slava

Next morning I paid my dues. On an empty stomach, hung over to the point of nausea, I set off in a cold rain along the Danube on the worst stretch of road ever. Slabs of broken pavement, potholes that would make the newspaper in Vermont, shoulders of slimy clay, stretches of soft mud. Cars passed, splashing muddy water on me; tractor trailer rigs lumbered so slowly through the potholes that we passed each other repeatedly in clouds of black diesel fumes. At one point the whole road was under three inches of water, making the potholes unavoidable. This torture went on for 25 miles, which took nearly four hours. I shudder just writing it down.

Eventually the rain let up and the road improved. In the countryside I saw crews of forty men and women planting potatoes on fields that stretched to the horizon, horse-drawn wagons dispensing seed potatoes. Fishermen lined the rivers and held fish up for sale to the traffic. I crossed a great swamp between two lakes, five miles noisy with frogs, ducks, and seagulls.

In the afternoon the sun came out and I reached a small city, Ismail, and found a restaurant with wi-fi. It seemed strange to be sitting there among well-dressed men and women, sipping Coca-Cola, viewing web sites, while the potato planters surely continued their endless task.

Three days of camping, broken pavement, sunburn, and huge fields of wheat and hay followed my visit to Ismail. The camping is basic: alongside wheat fields a quarter-mile down a tractor road, still within sight of the highway. One night a car passed on the farm road so close the wind from it shook the tent.

The area I’m traveling through shows signs of Soviet-style Communist development. The highway passes by towns, not through them. Main-street businesses and commerce were just not a factor in planning. Bus stops on the highway are huge painted concrete affairs with pillars, seating and outhouses. Today they are crumbling from neglect but still heavily used. I passed the remains of old communes, walled compounds where agricultural products were loaded onto trains bound for the cities, and bulk foodstuffs, building materials, clothing, coal and diesel fuel were unloaded for local distribution. Stores are few now because back then there were none. At each railroad crossing stands a tiny cottage, now empty, once home for a bachelor whose entire lifelong career was operating the safety gates. Drawbridges on the larger rivers are still manned this way today. I learned some of this in a small museum in Ismail, some from Wilipedia.

I’m learning the Cryllic alphabet by looking at town and city names on road signs and comparing them with google maps’ English version. Ukranian is spoken in small villages, Russian elsewhere; English is rare. Shepherds and goatherds tend sizable flocks. Here, unlike elsewhere so far, some are talking on cell phones.

One day I was out of water in a village with no store. Ten-year-old Valeria had a dozen words of English, and she led me to the village well, where her aunt Anna, a school teacher, drew water and filled my bottles. They fetched a young man who spoke English and interviewed me while a small group gathered. I was sent off with route directions and a small Coke bottle of Grandma’s wine. I asked if I was the first American bicyclist to come through town. No; they remembered the last time, in 2005.

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Gathered by the village well.

Tonight I’m in a terribly seedy seaside resort town, Zatoka, a dystopian Wildwood, New Jersey. The motel I chose didn’t look like much, but behind the walls, out of sight of the highway, is a beautiful compound of clean, modern white stucco and tile, facilities for barbecue, cooking and partying, and nice rooms. The delightful extended family that operates it is busily preparing for the upcoming season. The daughter (with a month-old baby) speaks perfect English. When I asked about a nearby restaurant, she looked at my bicycle and said, “It is too far. You will eat with us.” They are natural-born hosts, and the great family-style meal was relaxed and full of cheer. Once again I have somehow found the right place.

I’ll finish here and post while I have a connection. Apologies for the lack of photos. I’m trying. I’ll spend a few days in big, ancient, historic Odessa, securing a Russian visa and replacing some worn parts on my bike. And finding a good straw hat. Then Sebastopol, the Crimea, and finally, Russia. Wish me luck.

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Some Fun Now

Here I sit in Constanta, Romania, on a park bench, facing east and looking out at the Black Sea. This is the absolute last place I could decide between a northern (Siberia, Mongolia) route and a southern (Turkey, ‘Stans) route. But I have already chosen north, my original plan. Reasons include visa simplicity and the fact that most of you who responded voted north. The climate was a factor, too. North will be largely cloudy and rainy, the south sunny and dry. It is only April but sunburn is a problem. I’ll still have deserts to cross in Mongolia, 500 miles instead of 2000 miles on the southern route. But if I am suffering from sunburn already…I think my mind is stronger against rain and mosquitos than my body is against sunburn.

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Romanian friendliness and openness continues to impress me. The towns and villages changed character somewhat as I traveled east, more stores and little bars. In the evening people like to sit on little benches or stools, or on the curb or ground, in front of their homes, outside of their fences and gates, by the sidewalk and highway. I find this interesting: behind their walls and gates I see very nice gardens and yards where they could enjoy the evening in a quieter, more private place, but they choose to be out where people are, gathering in little family groups or bunches of older men, women, or teens. The Fedora is popular headwear, even for farmers in horse-drawn wagons. Little old ladies (Babushkas in my American slang, a Russian word not to the Romanians’ liking) have a standard outfit: black dress to below the knees, black stockings, big shoes, a bulky dark sweater or jacket, and a head scarf. Sometimes a dark-colored apron. They all appear to be seventy years old but a closer look reveals they are between 35 and 100. Younger women wear tight pants and modern clothing, and not all women over 35 are Babushkas. In groups of three or four I see them carrying rakes and hoes out of the village in the morning, back in the evening, with a food basket. Often they and their menfolk are seen gathering dandelion greens, lamb’s quarters and other edibles, or grass and clover for the fowl. They also gather snails for eating.

The last week has been full of experiences in Romania. This is a beautiful country full of friendly, real, vital people making good lives in very hard economic conditions. They don’t hesitate to smile and engage. They are proud of their well-deserved reputation for hospitality.

After my last dispatch from Craiova, on Orthodox Easter, I learned that the holiday is celebrated for three or four more days. An outdoor party at an agricultural co-op drew me in. A fiddler and accordion player (clearly farmers in their best clothes) were surrounded by a ring of dancers of all ages, their arms joined, making their way clockwise with steps resembling Country Western line dancing. A man came around with cups, filling them with Pepsi. A woman re-filled mine with beer. Next was something stronger from a Pepsi bottle. A little old lady came round dispensing bags from a basket; mine contained two hard-boiled eggs, a chocolate bar, tiny home-made fruit pastries, and some hard candies. The tradition with the eggs: find a partner: hold your egg out pointy end up; he or she taps your egg with his. The egg that cracks is given to the owner of the intact egg. I had four wins, my eggs lined up on my hat brim on my bike. I joined some men in discussion at the well; a short, sharp, powerfully built farmer translated for me. Some wished for a return to communism, when every family in town had a similar level of prosperity, no man or boy was unemployed, ever, and crime was rare (even if that prosperity level was pretty low, and there was little choice at the grocery stores or in careers). Others preferred today’s freedoms, abundant consumer goods, and the chance to at least try, by working harder or more cleverly, to earn more money (even if there was high unemployment, especially among the young, more crime, and many families in town struggled through extreme poverty while a very few farmers drove BMWs and vacationed in Western Europe). I’m sure glad they didn’t ask my opinion. I took my eggs and left after shaking thirty hands and kissing a bunch of cheeks.

Bound for Bucharest, I missed a turn. I took a side road to get back on course, and then missed another turn. Fifteen miles of back roads were required to avoid backtracking. The dirt road villages I encountered were tiny, isolated and poor. I started to set up behind a very small church at sundown. A charming little girl tried to help, then brought me to her house next door, a house with few comforts and no English. Dad and Uncle, already half drunk, insisted that I eat and sleep there. I should have refused.

Mom and kids were charming and hospitable, and dad and uncle were too, at first. But after much beer and many eggs, they brought out the whiskey, and things went downhill from there. They demanded louder, faster music from me, kissed my cheeks when they got it (eww!), cursed and spit on the floor when they didn’t. They showed their me their tattoos and scars, screamed at the wife, threatened and scared the kids, laughed and cried and pounded on the table. At 1:00AM I demanded sleep, climbing onto the couch on the porch. They insisted that I sleep in the main bedroom (none too clean, a rug for a sheet on a high, soft bed), over the wife’s loud objections. A high volume argument ensued outside the door.

A half hour later the dad and uncle woke me, loudly demanding more music. I yelled back louder and they apologized in a whisper, tiptoed out, and had a screaming argument in the hall. An hour later this scene was repeated exactly.

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The Bastards

At 4:00AM or thereabouts, they came in again with a big, burley policeman, a constable he called himself, with a stern look and a hand on his gun. I put on my glasses and greeted him from under the covers. He shined a light around, then asked, “Are you American?” Yes. “Are you a prisoner here?” No. “Are you sleeping in this house?” Trying.

The kids and wife watched from the bedroom door; the two drunks were quiet and scared. The questions continued. He never asked for ID. At one point he seemed satisfied, then asked, “Do you know Arnold Schwartzreneger?” I answered, “Yes, he’s my friend.” A little white lie. “Have you ever shaken his hand?” “Of course I have.” He moved closer and asked, “Did it hurt?” I said, “Yes.”

He turned and glared at the drunks, ordered them out of the room. Then he took off his hat and said, “May I ask permission to shake your hand?” I stuck my hand out from under the covers and we shook. It hurt. “You are free to go,” he said.

He went out in the hall and chewed the men out viciously. They didn’t make a sound, but the wife argued loudly with the policeman. After he left, the wife moved me to the couch on the porch, after much pantomime and confusion, because I thought she was kicking me out of the house and so I refused to get out from under the covers. She tugged, I held tight. A half hour later the roosters started crowing about three feet from my head . Before the sun was up, the drunk uncle was poking me saying, “Kaffe? Kaffe?” It made him sad when I refused coffee, tea, beer and whiskey. I ate a hard-boiled egg and was on the road by 7:15. I hope these two darling, left-handed girls survive their upbringing.

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Sweet, Left-Handed Darlings

That day in Caracal I met Andrei and Florentina at the grocery store. They are 30, from Constanta, 240 kilometers distant, visiting Florentina’s Mom for the holiday. Tea with Mom, lunch with Auntie, a tour of the gardens; it was most pleasant. They described Constanta, on the Black Sea, and invited me to visit a few days later. I envisioned the Jersey shore and accepted their invitation.

Rainy weather followed me for a few days. After a soggy camp I was watching the weather move (big sky country) and took shelter at a little village grocery just before a violent rain and hail storm. They were quite hospitable; soon I was seated and drinking home-made wine, sweet and strong. Visiting Costin and Ion, the father/son shopkeepers, was cousin Livru, from Bucharest, 30 kilometers away. By the time the rain stopped I had a friend, and an invitation, in Bucharest.

Livru is an entomologist, a mosquito expert working on an international West Nile Virus project; his wife Michela teaches English. After a fine dinner we had a great time around the kitchen table with Livru’s best friend Lucien, a dentist and orthodontist, and and Lucien’s girlfriend Corina, a beautiful dental student. It was my first joke session since England, and I learned a couple of new ones, too raunchy for blogging.

In the morning I got a tour of Livro’s office and lab, with Lucien and Corina. I really connected with these guys. Both underpaid professionals, they have travelled abroad and seen how their careers would be elsewhere. Yet they stay in Romania, proud to be Romanian (although not fond of the Romanian government), determined to make their homeland a better place. My hat is off to you, gentlemen.

I roamed Bucharest on my bike for a while, dodging showers, admiring the architecture, plazas, fountains and parks. I found some beauty there, but Bucharest needs a facelift, in my humble opinion. Crumbling grey concrete was the motif in many neighborhoods, and the gritty commercial and industrial zones start rather close to downtown. The beat-up busses and ancient trolley cars didn’t help. The people, however, were sharply dressed and friendly, except for the ever-present Gypsies.

As I left Bucharest the weather changed; the rain stopped, the temperature dropped, and a north wind grew to a gale. For the first time ever, a side wind forced me off the highway. Coming from my left (with a perilous drop-off to a muddy, puddled non-shoulder on my right), it prevented me from keeping to a path narrower than six feet wide. Broken pavement and heavy truck traffic made it even more challenging. After a couple of close calls when a tractor-trailer blocked the wind and sucked me close to the wheels (I mean really close!), I stopped, at 3:00PM, at a handsome restaurant, only to find they had recently built five nice cabins out back for tourists like myself. I may have been the first guest in number 2, for $32. I cleaned my bike thoroughly, washed my woolens, cranked up the heater and watched a movie. I was so happy.

Next day, fresh as a daisy with a clean bike, I found the side wind was now a tailwind. Yahoo! I made nearly ninety miles, despite a late start. In a little town I heard some Yankee accented English at a café. A half-dozen Marines from a nearby base were having lunch. Nice guys (and one gal), we chatted for a while.They were surprised at my choice to travel alone. When a bunch of US Marines call you sir and say they admire your courage, it’s hard not to be flattered. Semper fi.

This Kansas-like wheat growing area offers little cover for camping. Tired at sundown, I pulled into a farm with a few trees out back and held off two enthusiastic dogs until Luci rescued me. She pointed me to the courtyard and soon enough to the dinner table and guest room. Good vibes.

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Done For the Day

Vali and Luci and their two kids and two farm hands make a hell of a good life from the land. Forty cows, 70 sheep, lots of chickens, geese, turkeys. Vali doesn’t like pigs. They have a lot of land, a tractor, a horse and wagon they use for work. They sell milk and eggs, chickens, calves and lambs, onions and garlic, hay, flowers and herbs, and they rent land to other farmers. The farm hands get room and board and $133 a month. Room is a bunkhouse with a wood stove and outhouse; board that night was a big sausage and three eggs cooked in the kitchen and delivered to the bunkhouse. (We had lamb stew, greens, bread, beans, dessert, wine—a wonderfully wholesome and delicious meal.) Vali says the bulk of the farm hands’ income goes to alcohol and nicotine. They are strong, healthy-looking specimens nonetheless.

Chicks were hatching in the kitchen incubator, yoghurt was kept warm by the stove, and young Ionella washed dishes while I played a couple of tunes.

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Salt of the Earth

When there is no English sometimes the conversation is limited. Not so with Vali. After a couple of glasses of wine we switched to water. With pen and paper and words I could grasp (Romanian is a Romance language; my Latin and bits of other languages provided some vocabulary), Vali told me about Moscow’s grip on Romania via oil and natural gas prices, how corruption takes a huge percentage of tax dollars, about the soil and agriculture in different parts of the country, about his devotion to the Orthodox Catholic traditions, and lots more. A real fine character, he exuded warmth and cheer, and clearly relished his role as a farmer and head of the family. By the time we were seated for breakfast, he had done three hours of milking and chores. Soon the family and hands were gathered at the gate for a ceremonious farewell.

That night, with a storm threatening again, I found shelter at a miserable, dirty, forgotten motel, the only guest, an empty restaurant downstairs with the owners drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Good wi-fi though, so I got some e-mails and phone calls done. I cooked dinner in the room and fell asleep late.

My bank sent me a $10 iTunes gift (for being among the first to use their banking app), so I used it to download some music. I had lost all my music in France in a software update glitch. Next morning, in sunshine, with a tailwind, I listened while riding, something I have never done much. It is enjoyable in moderate amounts.

The next day brought me to Constanta. Not the Jersey shore resort I had imagined, it is more like a small Miami. Florentina and Andrei were most excellent hosts, showing me the beautiful, historic city on foot and by bus, and making me feel right at home in their apartment. I stayed two nights, my first layover since Simon and Stane’s in Slovenia.

The city is prosperous; fishermen, seamen, and longshoremen make better than average pay, and the resorts, spas and big hotels provide jobs. There are also a couple of universities. My hosts have a lively group of friends, and we joined them for a beer here, an ice cream cone there, and an evening in the waterside park, which was full of families, couples and groups enjoying the warm spring weather.

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A Good Crew

On the second night of my stay, we ordered pizza and beer for an impromptu party. Lovely Laura, her friends Elena and Mihaela, and Florentina all teach English or French. Catalin is the coolest dude I’ve met in a long time, smart and funny. Adrian, a former soccer pro who coaches now, kept the game on TV, even though the girls kept switching to MTV. Dan is a bear, a professional rugby player, and funnier than hell. His girlfriend Diana speaks four languages and studies Greek. Andrei is an economist, unemployed, who hopes to become a seaman.

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Last Farewell

Florentina sent me off in the morning with gifts and kisses and directions to the Russian Consulate. They were no help, and suggested I try the Embassy in Odessa. Which is exactly what I’m going to do. Stay tuned.

Hinterlands

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Making my way east from Belgrade was a mixed bag. With 3,000,000 people, the city spread out in a maze of highways with almost no signage. They just don’t bother with them here. Using the sun for direction was effective for the most part, but sometimes resulted in backtracking or unpleasant traffic-clogged stretches. I finally made some progress in the afternoon and reached the countryside with the typical Serbian mixture of neat, prosperous neighborhoods surrounded by squalor and litter.

Every country and village store has a table and chairs outside with men drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, some old some young, so I imagine unemployment is a factor. I was having a morning yoghurt at one such table with four men, reviewing my route map. Despite the language barrier they convinced me that my plan was unsound; they directed me to take some back roads north to the Danube and follow the big river east, a longer but nicer ride. They were so right.

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The back road was 20 miles of blissfully traffic-free mountainous riding, beautiful hill farms, a couple of primitive villages and a mountain pass with dramatic views. The last mile down to the Danube was among the steepest paved roads I have bicycled.

The highway along the Danube, through a big national park, was smooth and nearly deserted. The landscape was intensely beautiful for miles and miles. Forested mountains with silver-white cliffs and outcrops plunge to both shores; the highways on both sides are engineering marvels with bridges over canyons, tunnel after tunnel, one with an old fort growing out of the top, one with just a bridge to the next tunnel.

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Dirt side roads led to tiny hillside sheep farms with plum trees in bloom. I stopped at one for the night, the most extreme hardscrabble farm I’ve ever visited. I had to climb a path and ford a stream to get there.

A single guy, my age, has some hilly acres, a stone and brick hovel with 2 cows and a calf downstairs, a shed with some sheep, a pig, a garden, a dog, no fowl. A large garden tiller seems to be his only equipment, an old bicycle his transportation. No English, no electricity, a stream in the yard for water.

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He was clearly delighted to have a guest. I was introduced to all the animals and shown the crops and plum trees, the bees and the freshly planted potato patch, although not the living space. He helped me pick a good tent spot with morning sun (that didn’t work out—it was raining in the morning). As I was cooking he brought a plate with a dripping chunk of honeycomb, the darkest I have ever had, indescribably wonderful to eat. We sat and talked for a bit, he in his language and I in mine. We laughed when we understood, laughed when we didn’t, but mostly it was quiet comments about the evening, the birds, the dog, life in general. I think we both appreciated the conversation and the absurdity. In the morning drizzle he brought me a cup of hot milk, handing it into the tent with a twinkle in his eye. He brought a watch out of his pocket and pointed to it, wagging a finger at me to bust my ass for sleeping so late.

The rain stopped and I spent an entire day following the Danube river along a couple of long curves. It’s wider than the Hudson at New York. I could see that the Romanian side had a bigger, busier highway, a railroad, more towns and more agriculture. A few barges used the waterway; no bridges or ferries crossed. Serbia is different here. Still in a big national park, I found clean roadsides, picnic tables; the towns were cared for, had welcoming riverside spaces with benches and trash bins. I found so many roadside stops with dramatic backdrops that I ate too many snacks.

Next night, my last in Serbia, was a lot like the previous one. I turned right, climbed a hell of a dirt driveway, asked permission. This farm was more prosperous, had a house, two barns, a hothouse, thirty sheep and three cows, many fowl, and a view of the Danube. Like other Serbian farmers, this fellow approached me warily, greeted me gruffly, shook hands in a businesslike manner, quickly dismissed any notion of English, and considered my request thoughtfully (I can say ‘sleep’ and ‘tent’ in Serbian), then, removing a hat and rubbing his face, as if to say, “Woah, man, this is serious!”, he looked around, thinking. Then, “Da.” He points, I camp.

Today I crossed into Romania, not into the area known as Transylvania, as I had planned, but farther south. I could see the Carpathian Mountains to the north, fresh snow at the tops; they are Transylvania’s southern border. I could visit, at the cost of some hundred and fifty mountain miles, but I won’t. It’s nearly 200 miles to Bucharest as it is. I can likely find enough adventure between here and there anyway, if not enough wi-fi.

“Here” for tonight is a big old country roadside hotel, way past it’s prime and empty but for me and a village couple drinking beer. Looks like Grandma, Grandpa and 12-year-old Bogdan run the place. Once grand, the marble floors, wood paneling, red tablecloths and chandeliers say. Outside it is grey and gloomy with overgrown trees and garden, chickens in the courtyard (one fewer now that I have dined), and no cars in the weedy parking lot. My room lacks some basics but is overly luxurious with satin bedding and private balcony, Hollywood style. Bogdan speaks a little English and nearly fainted when I handed him a tip for carrying my bags. He has never seen the Internet, even at school. His Grandma presented me with an invoice at breakfast and went over it with me in detail, explaining each charge in long bursts of Romanian, which Bogdan translated in one- or two-word phrases, just like a comedy routine.

I set off in a light drizzle and completed the climb from the Danube to Romania’s agricultural interior. In Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzgovenia and Serbia the countryside, towns and villages were primitively and selectively developed. So far in Romania it is even less developed. In sixty miles today I passed nine villages with populations from 400 to 2000 (my guess). Only one had a tiny store with fruit, candy and soda. No bars or cafés. One gas station. Every village had a fountain, spring fed from nearby hills, where friendly townspeople were filling jugs, most on foot but some in tractors or cars. Damn little English but nice people!! No problem sharing my chocolate with little old babushkas, shooting the shit with the men, slapping five with the kids, holding the baby while mom fills the bucket. Elaborate set-up, too, with shelter from rain, benches and tables, a place to rinse mud from boots. Along the highway people wave and shout, make little bicycle motions with their fists, and wave me into the yard. At one place I stopped and was seated in a covered outdoor kitchen, fed meat and bread and served plum liquor. The family had a piece of land ten meters wide stretching from the highway back to the hills 500 meters away. So did the neighbors on both sides, dozens in the village, some bigger but not by much. Each had chickens, pigs, sheep, dogs, nice gardens, grapes, plum trees; some had cows. Women were preparing food, and very little of it looked like it came from a store. I wobbled down the highway overstuffed and a little drunk.

In the first real town, 12,000 people according to my friends, I was invited into a bar of sorts, really a comfortable living-room-like space with a modern glass-front refrigerator full of beer and soda, and a couple of arcade video games. Marcel and Cristina, an economist and lawyer couple who work and live in the city of Craiova, an hour away, keep this bar open weekends in their hometown because it is across the street from Mom’s house and they like to visit their friends. Mom fed me and sent me off with a bottle of her wine and a hat full of sweet treats. The wine is sweet and mild, low alcohol by the taste of it, refreshing after all the strong plum liquor lately.

It rained on and off today, but I still managed fifty miles in this flat, sometimes rolling terrain. Plenty of nice camping here. With a full belly I waited until late to start looking. Then I could see a serious storm coming behind me. A rough-looking bar/restaurant/truck-stop/fuel-station came into view. Very rough. I survived the dogs and the owner, who was turning sausages on a big wood-fired grill and beating the dogs with the same long fork. As soon as I got under cover the rain came in torrents. It turned out they have cheap rooms upstairs. Now I’m sitting by the radiator writing this for you while the rain continues to pour an hour later. From my window I see a few cars in the parking lot, more arriving. It’s Saturday night. I think I’ll get cleaned up and go see what’s happening downstairs at the bar.

Speaking of dogs, they are abundant and enthusiastic. They run free in bunches, no collars, or are chained in the yard inches from the road. They take their security responsibilities seriously. Three or four at once they come barking and growling, teeth bared. I haven’t been bitten but my shoes and saddlebags show scars. The Gypsy camp dogs are the worst: they don’t stop at a squirt from my water bottle, and if I’m going uphill they will chase me for half a mile.

Right this minute I’m in Craiova, Romania, in the deserted city center. Today is Easter for Orthodox Catholics, a big deal here, and all but a few businesses are closed. I found wi-fi at the closed tourism office. I’m headed off to Bucharest, then Odessa, Ukraine, just as soon as I add a few photos and upload this post.

THANKS FOR THE E-MAILS!!

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Into Serbia

I had both flat valleys and steep mountain passes between the last post, in Doboj, and Belgrade, where I am now. I passed through some incredibly gritty industrial cities in Bosnia; Tuzla stands out. Seems the major industries are nuclear power, scrap metal and smokestacks. I asked a waitress, “How do you like it here?” She said, “Its awful. The people are terrible. I hate it.”

Bijeljina was a bit nicer:

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I climbed one pass late in the afternoon, then into evening, trying to get to the east side for a camp with morning sun. I made the top, then climbed on a side road to find privacy. I didn’t choose this spot:

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By the time I was satisfied I had pushed into exhaustion, legs trembling as I pulled a windbreaker over my sweat-soaked jersey. I had my dinner in the dark and slept like a hibernating bear.

Next day I should have made it to Serbia. Five miles from the border I made a wrong turn and then, trying to reach the right highway using back roads, I got quite lost by sunset. My camp by a man-made lake was among the most private and beautiful I have enjoyed. It rained, stopping at 8:00AM for long enough for me to pack up and leave.

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I found my highway and entered Serbia in a drizzle.

As I go eastward the people I meet look to the west, toward western Europe and America, with admiration and envy. And they warn me that to the east I should be careful; the people are rough poor and not to be trusted. And indeed as I go east each border brings me to a country with rougher roads, rustier cars, more hardscrabble farms, bigger, dirtier gypsy camps and colder, harder looks from the men gathered to drink at increasingly tough-looking bars. Serbia is no exception. Pit toilets in some gas stations and roadside vegetable vendors with onions only, stuff like that. Rural neighborhoods with tiny homes, no apparent power or automobiles, chickens and goats, and ancient men and women hacking at their gardens with oversized hoes. Of course there were other, more prosperous looking neighborhoods as well, and all kinds of cars on the road, newer ones too. But the average is tending toward Yugos and subsistence farming.

A few kilometers in I encountered a funeral en route from church to graveyard: robed Orthodox Catholic priests, candle-bearers and a large cross, followed by a horse-drawn, flower-strewn bier, followed by a hundred mourners, followed by a mile of backed-up traffic. I stopped and removed my hat as the procession went by. Didnt have the heart to take a photo.

Later I passed through a little town with a littered, crumbling center surrounded by squalor. At a long, low, two-story school the teachers were hanging out the windows smoking cigarettes, laughing at each others’ jokes with gap-toothed grins while behind them the kids partied at a full roar, food and papers flying. The next town was clean, proper, and quiet; handsome, clean-cut schoolchildren were making their way home in little happy groups.

In Bogatic (it’s unpronounceable) I met Serbs. They are crazy bastards. They look you in the eye, act tough, sneer, then turn out to be sweethearts. My search for wi-fi brought me to the Havana café and bar in a town the size of Middlebury. The owner, Bata, 50 or so, employs his sons and their friends, all around 20, to run it, and it is my new favorite place. Bata’s twin sons Milios and Marko, 16, are like grown men and we became very close friends in a very short time. At 16 in rural Serbia you can sit at a bar, drink and smoke. Ivan the bartender is a real pro: he could work a bar in NYC no problem.

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Philipe, Danilo, Milos, Ivan, Billy. Photo by Marko

I tried to leave town but rain chased me back to the Havana. Thunder and lightning, a downpour, and sunset sent me next door to the Hotel Bogatic, where, among the old-world elegance and helpful staff, everything is broken. The price was right.

Later, back at the Havana, I joined in a mission. In an old Renault driven by Danilo (good driver), Philipe, Mladen and I went to a nearby village to meet a friend. It was a regular Chinese fire drill complete with dueling cell-phones, gas stops, and history lessons. For my part, I taught those boys that you offer an older gentleman with a white beard the front seat automatically, as a respectful gesture. They understood immediately. I like these Serbs.

What followed was a tour of most of the six bars offering live music. This is in a town of less than ten thousand. First was a small dive with a VFW feel to it, a keyboard player and a drummer backing up a fifty-year-old lady singing traditional songs. A good singer, she sat at a table with friends; I had to follow the microphone cord to find her. Next place was similar. The place after that had a three-piece band (accordion) and a young, sexy singer who went from table to table, singing with stylized flirting, looking into a man’s eyes, stroking his biceps and whatnot. After she sang to me (I promised Milos that I would post the video to Facebook, so you can see it some day if you want), I was invited to sing a couple of numbers myself. Those videos I have promised to post, too, but it was not my best performance. Alcohol was a factor.

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Late at night, staggering home, we traded stories. These young men are like characters in a classic tale. The twins Milos and Marko are near opposites, the straight-arrow and the long-hair, but they clearly love each other; Danilo is a bit older, wiser, experienced; Mladen is sharp, charismatic, and talented, but troubled, hurt and angry. E-mail me, dude, I have more to say to you. Philipe is the quiet one, my interpreter, a solid guy, under Mladen’s sway but his own man. He had the presence of mind to make video with my phone. Aleksandar, Nickolas, you other guys with unpronounceable names, thanks for everything. It was a great night; you are clearly the kings of Bogatic.

After a few winks in the luxury of the Hotel Bogatic, I had a breakfast date at the Havana with the twin’s parents, Bata, (his nickname) and Snezana. We had to wake the boys with the phone. These young guys; party animals but lightweights in the AM.

Goodbye turned into a show with pictures, gifts (a bottle of Rafika {plum whiskey}, a book, pens, lighters, a t-shirt, maps), extended toasts, and promises to return on my part, promises to visit me in America on their part.

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Totally charged from that experience, I found myself on the road again trying to process it all and prepare for whatever was next. I navigated to the Sava River and followed its banks toward Belgrade, where it joins the Danube.

Even with the late start and slight hangover, I made 125 kilometers pass under me before taking a side road to seek a campsite. Pretty densely settled here, but agricultural and not without prospects. Still, I didn’t find anything obvious, and asked a man in a fenced-in yard if I could camp in the field across the road.

“I don’t know,” he said, opening the gate. “Why don’t you come in here and have a drink first?”.

Four guys, all around fifty, were spending the weekend in a weekend house. “Stay here, it’s going to rain.” And rain it did, while we ate plentiful pork chops, salad, mushrooms, bread; great food. We made a good dent in the liter-and-a-half of plum whiskey I was carrying all day, and beer was abundant.

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They Don’t Mess Around

These fellows, closer to my own age, were Serbs with very good vibes, as mellow as they come. I never learned their names. They were all scuba divers. One spoke English; he made a living filming underwater video and selling it by the second. The rest had regular jobs. They were so relaxed and matter-of-fact that I felt instantly at home (pretty easy anyway in weekend bachelor’s quarters). “Here’s a bed, there’s the bathroom, thanks for the whiskey. Want another beer?” We watched TV, they smoked cigarettes. These guys are passionate cigarette smokers.

I crashed like Evel Knievel and declined whiskey at breakfast. Departing with no fanfare (I like the coolness these guys display), I was on the road again. It was Easter Sunday for the few Roman Catholics in the area: Orthodox Catholics observe Easter next week. The coldest day in a long time, gloves and all. The rain has gone, skies are clearing. Reaching Belgrade was easy.

Belgrade is hard to describe. The city is not beautiful, but it is decent and handsome here near my hotel, across from the parliament and seat of government. The people are extraordinarily sharp and urbane. My Fedora and shades don’t fool anybody here; they look me in the face with a smirk that says, “Who are you trying to kid?” The vibe is socially aggressive and fast-paced. Everybody jaywalks; pedestrians and motorists alike claim their space and display little patience for clumsy moves by American bicyclists. Twice I saw pedestrians stop in their tracks and stare down with dagger eyes a motorist who almost failed to yield, creating an extended tense moment that onlookers seemed to enjoy.

People look you in the eye here to a remarkable degree. Not in the country but in Budapest. I look back, of course. After a few scowls and dismissive, angry, “Pfft!” sounds and eye-rolling, we can talk. When I ask, “Do you speak English?” I either get ignored after a disgusted look, or else I am impatiently told, “Of course!” as if I had insulted them. The thing is, though, after that, people are nice, helpful, friendly, downright warm. I spent the afternoon among these Belgrade Serbs and although I haven’t figured them out, I love them. They don’t hold anything back; what you see is what you get.

On the street good food comes from hole-in-the-wall sidewalk shops, very cheap, no seating or bathrooms. Next door, or not far away, you sit at a café with your food and order an overpriced soda or beer (still less than a dollar and a quarter). The café serves no food; the hole-in-the-wall food joint offers no drinks. I’m getting along fine.

That’s it for now. Tomorrow I’ll see more of Budapest and then go camping in the countryside for a few days. Next stop: Transylvania. Now a part of Romania, I hear it’s nice, thick with castles, forests, hillbillies and history. And of course I hear that the people are dangerous and rough, thieves and liars, and lazy to boot. I doubt it. Whatever I learn I will share with you here in these pages.

Bosnia and Herzgovenia

It was indeed snowing when I woke, big wet heavy flakes sticking to the grass if not the road. And there was indeed home-made sausage. After breakfast in this hunting lodge (where I am the only guest and eat with the family) I climbed back in bed and worked on the gmail problem. I’m making progress. I work on it mostly to keep billyromp@gmail.com alive, but it would be a lot easier to get a new account. I’ll keep you posted.

By 11:00AM the sun came out and I was on the road. Crossing into Bosnia-Herzgovenia was, again, simpler than crossing from Vermont into Canada.

Bosnia-Herzgovenia is different. It’s somewhat tidier, and it seems to be more prosperous than Croatia, although I am told that it is not. I shared the road with the occasional Mercedes and the occasional tractor, some antique mopeds, plenty of pedestrians, and one horse-drawn farm wagon. Picnic areas are few but nice, except for the litter. It is really out of hand here.

I visited Kozarak, a small town off the highway, thinking I would change money and get some food. I asked a couple for directions to a bank and they reminded me, in genuine British accents, that it was Sunday and the banks were closed. They were Ervin and Arnela Kulašić, and they insisted on treating me to lunch. Arnela suggested Ćevapi, the national dish, and it was superb, just what a cyclist wants: big beef sausage squares between two fresh pancake-like things, with onions, salad, and local beer. As grateful as I was, I am much more grateful to them for sharing their story.

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Ervin is from Kozarak, and they visited here every year from their home in Essex, England, where they both have good jobs. They visit Ervin’s mother, and to keep alive their memories and feelings for their war-torn homeland. Kozaric was where anti-Muslim atrocities started; a monument in the center of town to massacred Muslims was funded partly by the Muslim community in Chicago. Arnela is from Sarajevo, where her prosperous family, her father particularly, suffered much from the senseless violence during the war, and lost everything. I won’t recount the details here, but I will never forget them.

Only children when the war started, they have lived most of their lives in England, where Arnela’s father still survives, still suffering from injuries received in a war that ended in 1994. Many Muslim families have returned to this town and this area, but many houses stand empty. Every few kilometers a small memorial sits by the roadside with flowers and candles, most with lettered stone plaques and photographs, marking the place where a loved one fell.

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I rode along toward Banja Luka with my eyes opened. Thanks Arnela and Ervin.

A curious thing: look at the google map of Bosnia-Herzgovenia and you will see towns all over but main roads only. Neighboring Serbia is thick with roads. On my paper map they are similar. The small roads I am on, east of Banja Luka, are roughly paved and (thinly) populated, and I have no idea why they are not on google maps.

By the way, if you want to, you can find Google Latitude on your computer or smart phone. Sign up and select me as a friend. I will approve it when Google Latitude sends me an e-mail. Then you can log in and see where I am (or last was when I had wi-fi). I think you need a gmail account to do it, but even with my recent problems, I still like those guys.

In fact, I got my account unblocked a day or two later. I’m dashing across Bosnia-Herzgovenia with a map and compass. The camping is good, the riding is better. Trees are blooming on the hillsides and the mosquitoes are few. I camped in the rain one night and rode in the rain next morning. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I ate lunch today with this bunch of kids in a tiny farming village.

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What fun! They go to school from 8:00 to noon. One spoke English; his mom owned the restaurant. I played some tunes for them, and an grizzled old guy bought my beers.

Tonight I got dinner and a big room in Doboj (pronounced dough-boy) for cheap. I’m headed for Belgrade, Serbia and then Bucharest, Romania. Then I absolutely have to decide; north to Ukraine, Russia and Mongolia or south to Bulgaria, Turkey and the ‘Stans. Let me know what you would do.

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