An Attitude of Gratitude

The relative leisure of my Turkish detour, and the hospitable café hangouts with endless glasses of tea, have given me the opportunity to work on my correspondence. While family and friends have received frequent e-mails, it has been a challenge to reply to all the mail from folks I’ve met along the way. In the past few days I’ve made some headway, often with the help of Google Translate, sending thanks and photos to those who have made my road easier.

The process has inspired this post, a general thanks to everyone, with a call-out to those who went beyond hospitality and courtesy to provide real support and friendship. It would be a cold, lonely and less meaningful journey without you, and I promise to spread the love as far and wide as my limited abilities allow.

You will notice that as we go back in time the photos are fewer. I lost some in a software glitch, but mostly I was reluctant to hold up a camera in people’s faces. I’ve overcome that reluctance now, and I truly regret having no photos of some people. If you are mentioned below with no photo, please consider sending me one. Thanks. Dank u wel. Merci. Gracias. Moltes Gràcies. Grazi. Hvala. хвала. Mulţumesc. дякую. Teşekkür.

In something like reverse chronological order:


Erol guided me to lodging, interpreted, shared dinner, tea and conversation, for no other reason than because he saw my need. Kandira,Turkey.


Atilla saved my ass! Why did he go to the trouble? He’s a good person with a big heart. Istanbul.


Omer and his boss didn’t have to befriend me, shelter me from rain, watch my bike, feed me good food and free tea. They wanted to. Istanbul.


Yunos offered inside info on ferries, and extended an invitation to visit, without a word of common language between us. He also helped to break the ice with the truckers on the Black Sea ferry.

Daniel So shared so much! A true gentleman. It is my crime that I have no photo of him. I will correct that oversight when I visit him in his Hong Kong home.


Igor Tudoran and Tanya. With little privacy to begin with, they took me in, fed me, and really went out of their way to help me in Odessa. Igor spent an entire afternoon helping me with visa errands (while he should have been studying), but more than that, he shared his hopes and aspirations, fears and frustrations, like an old friend. Igor is a major inspiration for this post. He’s the next Steve Jobs. Tanya is simply as sweet as honey.


Andrey Ivchenko is the man most likely to show up on my doorstep some day. And I will be hard pressed to repay the kindness he showed me in Odessa. He was just a long-haired dude on a skateboard; now he’s a friend for life.

Florentina asked ME for help, with a soft tire on her bike. My pump didn’t speak Romanian, but she and Andrei befriended me, put me up, and introduced me to the coolest people in Constanta. We still e-mail frequently, delightfully.


Luci & Vali, Cazinesta, Romania. Before I met this family I passed hundreds of little farms wondering what life was like for the families there. If these folks are typical, life is rich and good and happy. It’s hard to convey just how much we shared in our sixteen-hour relationship. Just look at the love on those faces!

Livru, Mihaela & Lucien. I soiled Lucien’s car seat with my bike chain; no problem. I screwed up his work schedule; no problem. I got drunk and told coarse jokes in Mihaela’s kitchen; no problem. I am convinced that I met the finest, funniest and most interesting folks in all of Bucharest.

The Guys, somewhere in Serbia. No nonsense, just good food, abundant beer, and a bed to sleep in. Hello, welcome. Goodbye, good luck. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of hospitality.


These guys, Mladen (with the white stripes) and his twin brother Marko, changed my scoring of Serbia from C-minus to A-plus. If they didn’t have such a good Dad already, I’d adopt them.


Ervin & Arnela Kulašić. The lunch was great, but the least of their gifts. They opened my eyes, in one hour. I promise to keep them open, and never forget.


Nedeljko. Thirty kilometers of climbing makes for close ties. You are looking at a very real, sensitive, thoughtful man. Croatia.


Peter dragged me off of a dusty Croatian street and brought me home. I’m sure glad he did. A sincere, happy, humble and dedicated family man; we need more like him.

Matea (AKA Alex), Gordana and Josip sent me off with homemade bread and booze, after a home-like stay in Croatia. I’ll never forget how natural and comfortable it felt to get up early and sit in our pajamas on one big couch, with the whole family, while the fire crackled in the stove. No photo, my bad. Alex, send me one!



These two, Simon and his dad Stane, dropped everything for two days to show me Slovenia’s beauty, history and cuisine. Ill never forget my hike/history tour with Stane. I miss them still.

Ailene in Venice rocked my world. Rocked it so much I came away without a photo. Don’t need one; I’ll never forget.

Another crime: no photo of Peter van der Straaten. Like a son, you drove me nuts for four days; now I miss you all the time! Really, send me a photo.


Chris, an unforgettable character. Kind, sensitive, generous, real. Thanks for sharing. I wanna be like you when I grow up.

Claudio, near Bologna, Italy, gave me a tent site on his farm, and in the morning honored me by letting me help with chores. Then he thrilled me by bringing me into the kitchen, playing his violin, and giving me a bottle from his wine cellar. Much more, he told me his wonderful story.

Jordi in Girondella, Catalonia, Spain. The best, the most, the standard to which all others must be compared! That goes for the boys, too. If I return anywhere, it’s Girondella.


Francis and Irene. I devoted an entire post to my stay in Saint Jean de Luz, and my gratitude still flows. See you in December!


Lydie Giraud. The picture tells it all. I’ll never forget sitting on the couch, drinking wine, listening to jazz and…checking our e-mail!


Catherine Rabier. Ever feel right at home the minute you step into someone’s house? Visit Catherine and you will. Generous spirit.

Lionel & Sophie encouraged me to stay three days. Without their special brand of hospitality and caring help, I might have missed Paris altogether. And what super kids! An inspiration.


Jean Claude Lecompte. Former world’s luckiest man, until I awarded myself that distinction. We shared our love of jazz and grand bicycle adventures until past midnight. Way past.


Carine and Aniel, living consciously and traveling widely, have developed big hearts and a knack for hospitality. They had good food and good advice for this would-be world traveler.

Francis Tabouret, Lille, France. Google Zingaro: that’s him. He deserves special mention; he cycled 25 kilometers with me, in the snow! I am very happy that we keep in touch.

Christel & Michiel. Elegant home, fine dining & wine, and genuine, down-home sharing and friendship. My Facebook friend. I wish I had half Michiel’s smarts and a wife like Christel.

Time & Tim, Ghent. I’m still using gifts and advice I received from these two world travelers and young lovers of life. Natural born hosts, funny and smart.

Marc and Christie, Wuustwezel, Belgium. I arrived at a difficult family moment, their first Warm Showers guest at that, wet and cold and full of needs. Their gracious welcome and hospitality was a godsend. Marc, remember that cold, pre-dawn 20 k ride to Antwerp? Crazy!

Simon Commercial. Now here’s a friend for life. He insisted I stay three days, encouraged me to start a blog, and shared his life story in the most heartfelt way. Thanks to his frank sharing and gift for communication, I KNOW this guy like I know few others. I am honored to be Simon’s pal, and I promise to live up to the honor.

Martin & Lucie, London. Long before you invited me to stay, I knew you would! You’re a cool family, with cool friends, and I really enjoyed the morning ride, an adventure and a pleasure. But your damn e-mail address is a dud! Send me a note, and give Lucie a kiss for me. Two kisses!


Imelda & David, Staines, England. I have mostly forgotten the pain of the accident. Never will I forget being a part of this incredible family for three days. A Few weeks ago Imelda e-mailed me and said little Orlah still asks, “Is Billy is going to make it to King Kong OK?” I almost cried. I love you guys.

Simon in Basingstoke. Still sorting out my bike fit, I stayed with Simon, one of the few I have met who knows more about bike fit than I do. And a fine, generous host as well.

Fay & Kate. My first hosts. Their first Warm Showers guest. You set the bar pretty high, girls, for future hosts! I should have listened to you and stayed another night. But Hong Kong seemed so far away! Thanks for keeping in touch. I think about you often.

Steve Thomas scooped me up off the road and cared for me when, on my second day out, I bit off more than I could chew and choked on it. What a fine gentleman, what a fine family.

Finally and firstly, Steve, David and Josh at SJS Cycles sent me off on my first wobbly kilometers with professionalism, warmth and British wit. And they still look out for me with support and advice.


The weather is here. Wish you were beautiful.
—Henny Youngman


Warning! This post is huge. I’ve got time on my hands.

Sometimes it’s easy to find a place for the night, sometimes hard. As the sun sinks and evening comes, I evaluate my prospects with increasing scrutiny. Rule of thumb: when in doubt, press on. Down the road may prove to be less doubtful. It has worked so far, unless I count the time in France I nearly froze before finding shelter at ten PM, three hours after sunset.

So, as I left Istanbul one late afternoon and headed east, I wasn’t too concerned that the map showed fifteen miles of dense urban streets before the suburbs and eventual countryside. Surely I would either reach camping territory or find lodging.

When I took shelter from a rain shower in a gas station, I still had two hours of daylight left. The gas jockeys had a comfy employee lounge, with a kitchen, tea samovar, bathroom, and a little room with rugs for prayer time. The shower turned into the biggest storm Istanbul has had in a decade: hail piled up in the gutters and, as I found out later, there was flooding downtown; cars submerged, streets washed out and food stalls floating. By the time the rain stopped it was dark. The boys offered to let me stay there, and I should have accepted. But I had found cheap accommodations the night before, and they told me that there were hotels in the direction I was headed. I was still in Istanbul proper but, traffic notwithstanding, I don’t mind riding at night with an effective lighting system.

Ahmed says,”No problem!”

I found the hotels, $200 a night Hiltons and such. I’d rather ride all night, I said to myself, and pressed on. Navigation was difficult, progress was slow. I spent some time under awnings and bridges as the rain came and went. The neighborhoods changed character, and soon my surroundings resembled the bombed-out projects in the worst sections of the Bronx. Streets were confusing, potholed and poorly lit. By now it was midnight. A bunch of young toughs tried to flag me down; the next bunch tried to block my way. One grabbed a handful of my shirt, and I almost went down. Whatever they had in mind, it definitely wasn’t friendly. I must admit to feeling some anxiety on the next few uphills.

A half-hour later the slums gave way to the outskirts—industry, car dealerships, strip malls and truck stops. At a gas station I was advised that the next hotels were twenty miles away, and another storm was coming in from the sea.

When in doubt, push on. At 1:00AM I saw a guy standing outside a sporting goods store—hunting, fishing, canoes and such. No English, but I made sign language for sleeping, tent. It started to rain. He got it, and motioned me to follow him. He led me to a big, steel-framed canvas storage tent, unlocked a padlock and lifted a flap. It was full of retail detritus: racks, mannequins, old life vests and paddles, boxes of disorganized junk. My bike just fit in. He shrugged and tied the flap.

I found an old camp cot and dusted it off, chuckling at my good fortune as I got into my sleeping bag and listened to the rain on the roof. I was exhausted and hungry, but warm and dry and thankful.

Then, just as the storm was starting to pick up, I heard a shout outside the tent. There was Atilla, my host, with an elegant tray of food on china dishes, great spicy soup, stuffed grape leaves, French bread, cake, yoghurt, and a glass of water. I thanked him in amazement. He just closed his eyes, put his hand on his heart, bowed his head and left. After my ordeal, exhausted as I was, it was overwhelming. I got all choked up.



Atilla and I had tea next morning.

The storm shook that tent but I stayed dry. I woke to bright sunshine, steam rising from the wet streets, and the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. I didn’t go. Next door was a gas station where I cleaned up. When I emerged from the bathroom the gas attendant, Mustafa, held out a glass of hot tea on a saucer, with two sugar cubes and a little spoon. “Hello!” he said, “Where you from?” They turned out to be his only English phrases.


Mustafa and crew

In the days since, the generosity and hospitality showed by Atilla and Mustafa has proved to be the norm in Turkey. I stayed in a couple of small beach resort towns, where the accommodations (including a generous breakfast) were so inexpensive I couldn’t be bothered camping. Waiters, clerks and strangers behaved as if my satisfaction was their highest priority. Between towns were mountains with short but steep passes, and surprisingly green forests, farmland and apricot orchards. Food joints at the top of mountain passes offered grilled meat, corn on the cob, hot tea and cold beer.



Kandira, away from the coast, was a farming and trading center with extensive markets but no tourism and just one pricey downtown hotel. I asked a cabbie, “Otel?” (Some Turkish is easy.) He pointed toward the downtown hotel but I made sign language for “too expensive”. He understood, bid me to wait, and fetched two men with cell phones. They made calls while the cabbie made gestures of reassurance and a young man kept repeating, “No problem, no problem.”

Soon, judging from their expressions, the solution emerged, although it couldn’t be communicated to me. A teenager was dispatched to guide me to an address. On a side street a set of stairs led to a second-story balcony with a few men sitting outside drinking tea (they do that a lot here).

Luckily, a man named Erol had some English. He explained that it was a “Pensionne”. I first ran into these in Belgium. They are dormitory-and-cafeteria style accommodations for out-of-town workers, usually rented by the week and often paid for by employers. This one is run by a school district and intended for teachers. Some retired bachelor teachers, including Erol, live there permanently. It appeared to be run by middle-aged Moslem women. With Erol’s help they fixed me up with a five-bed dorm room, all to myself, with wi-fi and breakfast, for about $9.00. Erol brought me to dinner at a bohemian place, an apartment where the rooms were furnished as lounges and food came from the tiny kitchen with no menu; you got whatever was ready next from the teenaged waitress. We were served, in a hot pan, something like a pizza with everything, but without the crust. A basket of good bread was provided, with which we scooped the hot, spicy, cheesey stuff; it was quite delicious. Young people, Erol’s former students, popped in a couple of times for a warm, two-kiss greeting and a short visit. After a smoke on the back porch with the young owner, we were halfway down the stairs before we remembered to go back up and pay.


Erol, Ismail, Turan

After breakfast with Erol and his policeman friend Ismail, it was another day’s ride from the next beach resort town. At lunch beneath a roadside oak tree a farmer took a break from his work, walked straight over to me and shook hands. Then he sat down three feet away and quietly joined me, as natural as can be. Although he refused bread and cheese and cookies, his face lit up at the strawberries and he had a few. Through sign language we learned a bit about each other’s lives.

You can say a lot with sign language. It’s important to speak in your own language as you do it, to convey meaning with tone of voice. Nodding or shaking the head are universal. Pointer fingers held together parallel; married? If the answer is single, a pointer finger indicates “one” as the thumb points to the chest. Divorce is like married, then quickly point in two different directions. Hold your hand at various heights, palm down, say “Children?” and you will be understood. Make the gesture nearer to the ground for grandchildren. (At this point, with gentlemen, the phones come out with photos of the grandchildren. But not with simple farmers, peasants or Gypsies.) Numbers are easy, and with a few gestures I am often asked my age. Make a shoveling or hammering motion, then rub the tips of the fingers together for the familiar “money” gesture, and that means, “What is your job?”

Which reminds me. For most of my life when asked my profession I have struggled for an answer. Not content with my livelihood for long, and changing careers so many times, I would often respond with an awkward list or a joke or a half-truth like writer or musician. This year I have started responding, “Christmas trees!” I wasn’t always proud of it, wishing for a more dignified profession. But in recent years I have come to understand that I enjoy it, I am good at it, and there’s nothing undignified about it; it’s honest work. I have become proud of it after all. And I receive a positive reaction from everyone, even in Moslem Turkey, where it takes some explaining.

Also, after finding that I’m an American, many people ask where in America I am from. I’m very proud to be a Vermonter, but answering, “Vermont” just gets puzzled looks in most places. Answering, “New York City” gets an instant reaction, oohs and aahs. And since I’ve lived there for two years over the last twenty-four years (a month at a time), and I love New York and my friends there so much, that’s my short answer. Much more than a half-truth.

But where was I? Between Kandira and the next beach town, Karasu. The hilly farmlands with orchards, hayfields, and patches of woods; the villages, tractor traffic, old cemeteries, streams and roadside springs; and most of all the hilltop vistas with tall pointed minarets marking the village mosques, all reminded me of my beloved New England’s green hills and church steeples. At times on these hilltops I could hear the call to prayer from several village mosques; first one starts, then another, then a third. Many times, bicycling Vermont’s back roads at midday, I have been treated to a similar symphony, of church bells tolling the noon hour.


In the late afternoon a shady farm road beckoned me, and I followed it through a patch of woods to an apricot orchard. A sunny meadow and a cool breeze lulled me into lingering. Karasu, with beach hotels and restaurants and tea houses, was only a few downhill miles away. But I stayed, playing mandolin until sunset, and pitched my tent. I enjoyed a fine dinner (if I may compliment my own cooking) and read yesterday’s New York Times on my phone.

Distant thunder. Wind. I added four stakes and guy lines to the tent and got back inside just in time. What a downpour! The storm passed right over my camp, with lightning and thunder so close it scared me. Wind shook the walls of the tent, and the rain was so hard that when I put my palm on the wall, it felt like I was slapping five with an angry Thor. My gear and I stayed dry, though, even through a couple of encores. It rained on and off through the night. In the morning, sunny skies. By nine the tent was dry and packed, and I was on the road.

My morning cleanup at a gas station was again followed by complimentary tea from the attendants. Are there friendlier people anywhere on earth? In the villages, men gathered at shaded tables to drink tea don’t just wave, they wave me in, serve me tea and cookies, and ask for a mandolin tune (all sign language except for “Hey-low!” and “Where you from?” and “No problem!”). Farmers, construction crews, schoolchildren—they all stop, shout greetings, and wave their hats until I’m out of sight. More than half of the cars, and all of trucks and busses, toot friendly toots, wave, shout, and give thumbs up. Fruit vendors, after my strawberries are weighed and paid for, slip a few more into the bag, and maybe an apricot or two, with a smile and a twinkle. A Turkish lira, $.54, buys a pound of fresh strawberries, and I’m never far from a roadside stand.

Even at this Internet cafe, a teenage boy greeted me with, “Hallo! Where you from?” Within a few seconds, friendship established, he brought me a tea.

I carry a pack of cigarettes with me, Marlboros or Lucky Strikes, and some hard candies, in my handlebar bag. The Gypsies always shout when I go by their camps, and I like to stop for a minute. They crowd around me, men, women and children. Here in Turkey they really are camps, tents and tarps and very few permanent structures, none by western standards. I don’t have to offer: the kids come up with their hands out, and within a few minutes after shaking hands, the men make smoking-cigarette sign language.


I want to understand these people, but it’s hard. Their habit of remaining dirty, even filthy, when often there is a hose or a river nearby, and their open dishonesty (an oxymoron?) and shamelessness, puzzle and fascinate me. Grown men will reach into my handlebar bag to grab something, then smile sheepishly when I slap their hand away. As I leave, they say in English, “Wait! Stop! Money! Give me money!” not in desperation but with smiles, as if to say, “Come on, man, I’m your pal!”

I often see a teen or two who is clearly different from the rest, with clean clothes and a more civilized demeanor, always hanging back but staring intently, as if trying to communicate. I wonder, will they escape their siblings’ fate? Do they suffer for their “rebellion”? Are they ashamed of their living conditions, their families, their kinsmen?

As elsewhere, the local people despise the Gypsies, although I see them putting coins in their cups as they go from table to table at cafés, wordlessly begging. Only the women beg this way, often with a baby in her arms or a toddler in tow, and an imploring, desperate face. Gypsy kids from five to ten find places to beg, performing services like returning your cart in supermarket parking lots, or lifting the lid on trash cans for you. One tiny girl in Istanbul would press the signal button for pedestrians at a crosswalk with an upturned palm and a heartbreaking smile. In cities the Gypsy women and teens do their recycling, waiting as merchants empty boxes, then breaking them down and piling them high on hand carts. I never see the men outside the camps, where they disassemble appliances, autos and computers for recycling, and squat on their haunches under shade in groups.

You can count on another post from Turkey, since I have another week here. I feel very relaxed and contented here, but at the same time eager to make progress toward my goals.


This two-week detour to Turkey is somewhat like a “vacation” from my expedition. I’m resting up for the challenges ahead. Soon I’ll have my Russian passport. Then I’ll be slogging across flat, agricultural European Russia, crossing the Ural mountains, and pushing eastward for two months through Siberian forests. Happily, my knee pain has mostly disappeared in the last week, sunburn is under control, and my mind is at ease. I miss my friends and offspring, and the English language, but not much else. From my position as the luckiest man in the world, I can only hope, sincerely, that you all slay all your dragons and enjoy the victory. Peace and love.

Detour to Istanbul


The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.
—Isak Dinesen

It took an entire day to get on board my ship, starting in an office in Odessa then another office, where I met Daniel, a cool fellow my age who is traveling from his home in Hong Kong to London, through Siberia, by train, with a folding bike that he uses in cities. We were the only regular passengers on the Sea Partner, a huge cargo ship and truck ferry that was our home for three days.

After a wild taxi ride to the port, we finally found our dock, a shipping terminal where the closest thing to information was a little sign language from a longshoreman. Finally a bored young fellow with five words of English motioned us to follow him. Then, over the course of several hours, three different kinds of security and customs officers checked us out and asked me to open the mandolin case. Three times I complied, then played a couple of bars of “Sailor’s Hornpipe”, which cracked everybody up every time. They recognized the melody! Customs man got the biggest laugh, though, when he turned to Daniel’s bike case and said, “Piano-forte?”

Eventually we got to the last official, a tall, good-looking, heavily armed blonde lady in camo fatigues who cranked up a 25-year old computer and, after much delay and ceremony, stamped our passports, giving us permission to leave Ukraine.

In-between we were left in the sun on the crumbling concrete pier, dodging forklifts and trucks. No cameras allowed.


The Sea Partner

We finally boarded and found our cabins, and watched as a dozen trucks drove onto the lowest deck (there were nine decks aft and six fore decks). The drivers came up to the lounge, and I never saw a tougher-looking bunch of characters; Turks and Russians from thirty to sixty with tattoos and scars, wild hair and mustaches, gold teeth here and there, knives on their belts and evil eyes for me and Daniel. They took tables, set up games of dominoes and backgammon, and opened bottles of vodka. Hi, fellas!

The ship got under way just after sunset. A harbor pilot boarded from his little vessel to guide us out to sea, then hopped back off to return home when the ship captain took over.


The Cute Little Pilot Boat, 30 Feet Long



For three days we crossed the Black Sea, with calm seas, nice weather and other ships always in sight. Daniel and I took our meals together and got to know each other. A government administrator a few months from retirement, with two grown daughters, he has lived his whole life in Hong Kong. This was his first adventure. He speaks perfect English and we plan to meet again in Hong Kong.

As I expected, the truckers turned out to be a bunch of sweethearts. I broke the ice with some fractured Turkish and Russian. Soon they were sharing their candy and taking photos of each other wearing my hat. Vlad confessed to speaking a little English, and Yunos invited me to stay with him in Turkey. Translating Turkish to Russian, then to English, we got each other’s stories. Good men, hard workers. One was bound for Iraq, another for Tajikistan.

On advice from Yunos, Daniel and I arose at 5:00AM to witness our entry into the Dardanelles, the historic straight that separates Europe from Asia. Here the Silk Road from China, the Spice Road from India, and the sea route linking the Danube River (and many other rivers) with the Mediterranean Sea and the world, all cross. It was beautiful, with green hills topped by elaborate Mosques, ruins of Ottoman forts and castles, waterside mansions with huge yachts docked in front, and porpoises jumping alongside the ship. The waterway was busy with ships and boats of all sizes and descriptions; as we approached Istanbul it became a crazy scene thick with ferries and fishing craft, launches and yachts, huge tankers and container ships, sailboats and speedboats. Absolutely mad.

We docked. Daniel and I said goodbye to the truckers and crewmen, and we were handed over to Ahmed, a driver and “agent” (of what we never learned). He held our passports, which we had given up upon boarding, over my ineffective objections. Ahmed was handsome, nattily dressed, and can-do. We stuffed my bike and Daniel’s, all our luggage and us into a little sedan, and went on a wild ride through Istanbul (including a ferry ride and a bridge from Asia to Europe). We wound up at a gigantic customs building, where Ahmed arranged to have my passport disappear into a maze of offices and come out later with a Turkish visa. The entire bill, taxi and all, was $20. Ahmed bowed and left. Daniel and I said goodbye and I once again found myself alone and on my bicycle in a strange city.

Istanbul is mad, crazy, insane, wonderful, dangerous, delicious, huge. Everybody is buzzed on the strong tea they serve in little glasses. Men from the tea shops run all over downtown with steel trays with glasses of tea, keeping the taxi drivers, store clerks, cops, bank tellers, and construction workers, everybody, slurping tea with sugar. They collect empty glasses on the way back without breaking stride.

Tea? Best in town!

Starbucks and McDonalds are deserted; the tea shops are full. They all have men smoking hookahs and playing dominoes and backgammon, noisy with the tiles slapping. The best bread since France, and the rest of the food is outstanding.

The traffic is beyond description. Aggressive (but not angry) drivers, lawless (but skilled) driving; it is dense with every kind of vehicle, plus throngs of pedestrians, pushcarts, vendors, double/triple/quadruple parking, loading and unloading, Gypsy cardboard carts, beggars, hawkers, hookers, cops and robbers. I had to go ten miles through this shit to find FedEx. The street kept changing from Times Square to the Cross Bronx Expressway (with pedestrians) to Canal Street to an alleyway to a bombed-out, long-forgotten construction zone and back again. I didn’t see a single other bicyclist, and I nearly got killed a dozen times.

There are miles and miles of street shops selling absolutely everything, stall after stall, carts, storefronts, kiosks, stands, guys carrying trays on shoulder straps. You could build a ship or furnish a skyscraper or supply a movie set, any movie, with the stuff I saw. Neighborhoods are devoted to sewing machines, tools, restaurant supplies, power equipment, fruit, phones, auto parts, office stuff, you name it. I found a store that sells goose down (five grades), duck down (four), and chicken feathers. A good part of downtown caters to the maritime trade, with separate shops devoted to rope and cable, brass fittings, pumps, bearings, boots and gloves, books and charts, radar and sonar, GPS, sattelite phones (I want one), anchors and chains, everything.

I got my visa stuff mailed and wound up in a hostel in a tourist area near the biggest, most historic mosques and ruins. It’s big, maybe fifty blocks of hotels, hostels, restaurants, shops, bars, tea houses, and art, antique and carpet dealers. These Turks! Waiters stand outside waving menus and greeting everyone (the streets are packed with tourists). “Hello! Welcome to Istanbul! Table ready! Best in town! You like beer? Wine? Meat? Tea? Pastry? Here’s my card! Please come back! Best in town!” Every shoemaker and trinket seller has a smile and a sales pitch, bowing and gesturing toward his goods. There is good healthy food for sale from street carts: corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts, watermelon slices, all kinds of nuts and fruit, orange juice fresh-squeezed while you wait. Tea and coffee from big brass wood-fired samovars. Dried fish and delicious olives.


I spent a morning cleaning my bike at the hostel, then rode all over town looking and eating. I can’t say ALL over, because this city is huge, five million people. But I got into ten different kinds if neighborhoods, mazes of cobblestone streets older than Jesus, hearing the call to prayer coming from mosques, back where the people live, far from tourist land, where no English is spoken. I’m exhausted.

Tomorrow I’ll load up the bike, do more of the same, then head out into the countryside in the evening, go camping. I’ve got two weeks to ramble before returning to Istanbul to pick up my visa and passport. Then it’s back to Ukraine to resume my eastward route into Russia. I’ll try to post once or twice in the meantime. Please send me an e-mail. It’s lonely out here sometimes.

Odessa Revisited

Here I am back in Odessa. It happened this way…

After sending my Russian visa application and passport to Washington, DC, I left Odessa somewhat sadly and slowly. The skateboard boys staged a going-away party the night before, a big one, a late one. I spent four days riding through flat agricultural land and sandy pine forests, camping in nice places and enjoying some smooth roads for a change. Towns and small cities were busy because of a Russian holiday, and I made pleasant noontime stops each day to check e-mail and have a beer or a snack at an outdoor cafe. The weather was very fine, sunny and hot in the daytime with cool nights.

Just after I entered Crimea I got an e-mail from my friends in Odessa informing me that my mail had bounced back. It is illegal in Ukraine to mail passports, and I got caught. That is, we got caught, because I had used Andrey’s address in the “from” section on the shipping form. I took an overnight train back to Odessa, got us off the hook without too much trouble, and found myself back where I was a week earlier, without a Russian visa. The American Embassy in Kiev was no help, suggesting that I fly to Washington with the passport myself, and hinting that they had more important issues to deal with.

After an evening of head scratching and Internet research I was still stumped. Russian visas are only issued in the passport holder’s country. Even if I sneaked my passport through the Ukrainian mail, there was no assurance that I could get it back again. And the clock was ticking: after my Western European delays, some hard pushing through Eastern Europe had put me within reach of my originally planned June 1 entry into Russia. Now I was losing days. For a while I considered skipping Russia altogether and changing the plan to Turkey (which I always wanted to visit anyway), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But I was discouraged from that after reading about the complicated visa application processes for four of those six countries.

I considered returning to Romania, where my friends Florentina and Andrei in Constanta would surely help. But as close as it is, a couple of hundred miles, the connections by rail, bus, taxi and ferry (including walking a few kilometers through Moldova, which has no rail, bus, or taxi connections in that area) are ridiculously complicated, expensive and slow.

In the morning I came up with a plan. I will travel by boat across the Black Sea to Istanbul, Turkey, where I can mail my passport and visa application to Washington, go cycling through the countryside for a couple of weeks while waiting for the visa and passport to return, then steam back to Odessa to resume my eastward path toward Russia. I’ll get to see some of Turkey, and the boat ride will be fun. It is early in the season for the cruise ships and luxury ferries, and they are expensive. But I found a cargo vessel that takes passengers in the few crew bunks that were freed up when technology reduced the number of crewmen needed on board. The ticket is cheap, no frills; I will bunk and eat with the crew. It will stop in Bulgaria for a day, so I can visit there. The whole process, including the time I have lost already in Odessa, will put me about ten days behind my June 1 target for Russia. I’m sure I can make it up on the 2500 kilometers of flat farmland between Odessa and the foothills of the Ural Mountains.

Waiting for my boat, I spent the day at the beach with Andrey and two new friends, Sergey and Volya (sorry about the spelling, boys).


The semi-crowded city beach has clean sand, clean water, small waves and busy ship traffic on the horizon. The people-watching was unforgettable. Sorry fellas, I didnt bring my camera, but here’s one Sergey took.


In the meantime, here are some random notes from my recent ride down to the Crimea.

Like the western part of Ukraine, there is a big contrast between the countryside with its peasant culture and small, underdeveloped, decaying villages, and the bigger towns and cities, where the centers are busy with modern shops and streets busy with well-dressed shoppers. Here the road surfaces are better, and the highways more often go through the cities instead of around them. I saw some huge modern factories that were freshly painted and clean-looking, with mowed lawns and cheerful signage, nothing like the dystopian industrial landscape I saw in other parts of Eastern Europe.

In addition to roadside vegetable stands I frequently saw old men or women sitting by the roadside with an upturned bucket or cardboard box with just a few eggs or scallions or apples for sale, desperate looking figures who don’t look up when I pass.

When I camp, washing up in the morning is limited to a quick face splash with a water bottle. I always stop at the first opportunity for a more thorough job, usually at a gas station. Some are disgusting, some are nice, but if there is running water, even just cold, I can wash, shave, rinse clothing, and feel good. The people are almost always nice, and I always buy something if it’s available, water or soda or peanuts.

One gas station I stopped at last week, at a crossroads far from town, was over-the-top nice. Spotless chrome, glass and tile inside and out. Four attractive women in uniform (black skirt and shoes, white shirts, perky hats like airline stewardesses used to wear) were cleaning, stocking shelves and pumping gas. The single male employee was cleaning tire marks off of white-painted curbs. The bathrooms were as you would expect in a fine restaurant, with three shining sinks and a mirrored wall. Espresso and pastries were available. At a small counter were four upholstered bar stools and three of these…


…for charging your phone, and a sign inviting you to use the free wi-fi. As I was leaving, the staff was lined up for inspection by a stern female manager in the same uniform, but with stripes on the epaulets.

I have a lot more observations I’d like to share, but it’s time to catch my boat. I expect that I’ll have plenty of time in the next few days for more blogging. Thanks for visiting!


Strange Days Indeed

I have re-written this post a half-dozen times as my stay in Odessa has grown to more than a week, my longest layover by far. I planned to persuade the Russian Consul here to grant me a Russian visa. The four-day International Worker’s holiday was the first delay. Then, over the course of three long days spent riding busses, waiting in lines and waiting rooms, and filling out form after form, I got to meet with the man who says, “Nyet.” I admit it now: Russian bureaucracy is stronger than my resolve. So I am employing an American visa specialist to obtain the visa for me. This involves sending my passport to Washington, DC, for ten days. It is risky to be here without it, (every hotel needs to see it, and any cop can demand to see it), and not exactly legal to mail it overseas. In fact, FedEx refused to accept it on a Saturday, adding two more days to my Odessa Odyssey. The good part is that it is a vibrant, fascinating city full of nice folks.

I arrived during the May Day holiday, when the center is particularly busy in the parks, shops and restaurants. Along with the usual food, flower and souvineer vendors, there are musicians, pony rides, and jugglers. In what seems to me a stroke of genius, they rent little electric cars for the kids, with radio remote controls for the parents. The kid has fun, and dad gets to play with a new toy. You can also pose for a picture with a giant snake, lizards, falcons, peacocks and various mammals.

I stop to chat with Slavi every afternoon. He does portraits on the street, a trade he has pursued in twenty different cities around the world. Good stories and information, that guy. The waitresses in Wuko, my favorite tavern, have little English and greet me like family, guiding me to my favorite table and bringing my Corona with no glass (and giggling at it).


Potemkin Stairs

It is very fine in and around the center, the Potemkin Stairs, with many busy parks, fountains and sidewalk cafes, a beautiful opera house, rows of beautiful buildings and several world-class hotels. The atmosphere is relaxed: traffic is slow-moving and quiet, shopkeepers sit outside and smoke, couples stroll the streets, and parents with children are everywhere taking their time. In the parks young and old men play chess, backgammon and dominoes. The outskirts are dusty, chaotic and crowded, with noisy bazaar markets spilling into the potholed streets, dense traffic ignoring the rules, and antique, overloaded trolley cars rumbling along on a treacherous snake-pit of tracks.


The Opera House

Closer to the water is the port, huge, industrial but clean and hard-working. A large hotel there caters to those ship captains, traders and businessmen who visit Odessa without ever leaving the waterfront. To the north and south are the beaches, most topless, many nude. The unusually warm and sunny weather has brought about a marvelous surplus of sunburn.


Andrey Ivchenko. Photo my Not Me

I attracted to the noise and action of skateboarders in one park. They had more skill than I see in most places. I quickly befriended Andrey, Alex and Stanislaus. They enjoy some status in his town; a skateboard video displaying their skills and passion has made them admired heroes to the young skateboard crowd. When we walk around downtown kids stop frequently to greet and bump fists.







I am fascinated by the extremes of rich and poor living in close contact and what seems like harmony. The rich are like any big city’s upper class, shopping and dining in the fancy establishments, parking their Porsches, and having a hell of a time all dressed up and fingering their phones.

The poor are making an impressively good show on tiny incomes. The apartment building where I’m staying holds three times as many as a similar sized building stateside. A a toilet and a cold water only sink in a hallway serves half a dozen people as their only plumbing. Couples make a home in a single tiny room, and four men share one slightly bigger room, with a toilet far away upstairs. It’s grimy and falling apart, with junk piles and plaster suggesting generations of dense habitation and neglect. Yet every morning well-dressed, stylish people emerge and go to work in retail, restaurants, banks. My friend Andrey, for instance, works in an art gallery; most of his pay goes to his rent, and he eats little in order to keep clothes on his back and his phone and electricity paid. Yet I don’t see a poverty mentality. That’s just how it is; walking around with a only few cents in your pocket most of the time and dealing with it, counting your thirty-five cent bus rides because you only earn a dollar or two an hour.

So far on this trip it as been easy to get local cash with my debit card at an ATM. It stopped working in Ukraine, for purchases as well, and I used up my small stash of Euros and Dollars. With the four-day holiday, stuck in Odessa waiting for the Russian Consulate and the banks to open, I completely exhausted my cash. Andrey and his friends kept me (the rich guy) fed, and I’m sleeping at Andrey’s tiny downtown apartment, accessible only through a crazy maze of hallways, other people’s kitchens, dark stairways and long passageways full of stuff. It was fairly easy, and fun, to get enough for a beer by playing music on the street.

I finally got the bank card working with the help of the good people at Vermont Federal Credit Union. In the meantime it was a complete change of pace for me, waiting instead of pedaling, watching the hours rather than the kilometers go by. One day I sat in a park watching people for so long I had to change benches twice to stay in the shade. The little skateboard dudes stop to bump fists with me. In fact, when I visit Primorskaya Park the skateboarders glide over to see me and there is a great big round of handshaking, slapping five, bumping fists and (for the girls) cheek kissing. I try skating every day and I’m learning to jump, if not land upright.

As an example of the relaxed atmosphere here, the people enjoying the park seem to enjoy the skateboarders as well. My pals swerve closely through the strollers and children without any disturbance, behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated for a minute in New York. They are friendly with the police. In one incident the boys told me about, a stray skateboard bumped (but did not injure) the shoes of a distinguished looking older man on a bench, prompting an exchange of insults. He called the police, who politely told the boys to be more careful, and politely told the gentleman to go sit somewhere else. They’ve got a little advocacy group going, and the get a huge amount of tacit, and almost no official, acknowledgment from the strong-mayor city government.

With my my bike up at Andrey’s I’m on foot for a change, which is good, one notch closer to the people. I’ve walked miles and liked what I saw, mostly.

Here they have trolleys and big old busses, and unregulated taxis, all pretty cheap. But most people use the “little bus.” These are Mercedes Sprinter or Isuzu vans, a little smaller than a UPS truck, outfitted as a small city bus. They are privately owned but licensed by the city, which assigns routes and provides bus stops and signs. The drivers are often the owner, or the owner’s family. Like a NYC taxi, they are prized moneymakers. The driver decorates with curtains and such, provides music, talks on his phone and lets his friends ride shotgun. A carpeted engine cover to his right is strewn with bills and coins; you make your own change, paying 2.50 grivnas as you exit, about $.36. They get crowded and overloaded (bumping bodies is OK but eye contact is rare), and when a rider exits the rear door, he hands his fare to his neighbor; then it passes from hand to hand to the front. Sometimes two or four people make change together so they can hand a five or ten up through the crowd. I never saw anyone exit without paying. Another thing: no man or teenage girl sits while a woman stands. This courtesy is performed completely without eye contact or acknowledgment. Late at night they park near the clubs and wait until all of the seats are full, then go roaring off, a rolling bar scene with no bar.

I am eager to get back on the bike, but I’m waiting for Monday to ship my visa application. It’s easy to stay; I have a place to sleep, bike security, friends young and old, and eating doesn’t cost much. In fact, I’m busy making my rounds, sticking my head into Ludmilla’s barber shop to say hi, checking on the chess games in the park, dropping coins in my favorite beggars’ cups, and getting ice cream from beautiful Elena. I can’t walk very far downtown without bumping into an acquaintance. A few don’t know why I’m dressed so funny, they just know I’m Billy. Some have agendas involving a few grivnas.

On Saturday night I visited some clubs, large dance venues packed full, one with a great bar band. I wound up in an extra-crazy gay bar (strictly on a tourist visa), with a good bunch, drinking and dancing to excess, and experienced that old familiar shock from my youth: stepping out from the decadent smoke-filled light-show nightlife noise into the bright Sunday morning sunshine, birds chirping in the trees.

In a couple of days I’ll head down to the autonomous region called the Crimea, a mountainous peninsula said to be different from the rest of Ukraine. There the native Tartars were forced to relocate by the USSR before WW II, replaced by Russians populations from the north. Many Tartars returned after 1989, and live uneasily among the Russians. There are few ethnic Ukrainians. The Crimea is resource poor and underdeveloped except for seaside tourism. The hills are known for their wild feuding hillbillies. Can’t wait to meet those guys.

Then I plan to visit Luhans’k, near the Russian border. A widely-believed legend from ancient times tells of an empress of Ukraine who was insecure about her beauty, so she exiled all the beautiful Ukrainian women and girls to far-off Luhans’k. Today their descendants give the city it’s reputation for tall, beautiful Ukrainian women. Gotta check that out.


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.


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.



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.



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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.



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:


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.



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.


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.