August 2009


All we wanted was to get our laundry washed.  We were down to our last change of clean clothes, and the forecast for yesterday was for thundershowers, so it seemed like the perfect time to take a break from hiking.  Unfortunately, when we checked at the tourist information booth a few days ago, we were told there isn’t a laundromat in Zabljak.  The only available place for doing laundry was at a campground just outside of town.

Despite the forecast, yesterday morning there wasn’t a cloud in the sky so we decided we would walk to the campground.  We wanted to double-check the location of the camp and so stopped at the tourist center, where the man there laughed at us and said “Today isn’t a day for laundry.”  He explained that by morning all the weather stations had changed their forecasts and the day was supposed to remain beautiful, with the storm not arriving until night.  He pointed out the many locations we could easily visit, and we were convinced.

Dropping our laundry back at our room, we packed a few things into a pack and our knapsack.  I always feel a little ridiculous carrying a pack when everyone we pass is simply strolling along, but I also feel safer carrying our fleece jackets, mac in a sacks, food, water, etc.

We looked at our map and considered our choices.  The map we have is the only one sold in town, but it’s not particularly good, since it is a few years out of date.  We’ve already found several new roads, and the trails don’t always match up.   Some of the trails are listed as “Marked Routes” and generally they are marked, but not always, and many intersections don’t include any signage to point the correct way.  Still, Jablan Lake beckoned and we took off.  Between a late start, a wrong turn or two, and many pauses to decide which was the best route, it wasn’t until early afternoon that we were on the final ridge that would lead up and over to the lake.

We’re normally quite cautious hikers.  Once, when we were hiking along the Snake River, we started up a trail and then turned back after a couple of hours because we weren’t absolutely sure we were on the right track to take us back to the river and our water source.  We camped that night by our Jeep.  So, usually, when in doubt, we play it safe.  But we had a slightly frustrating experience two days ago struggling to find another lake that turned out to be reedy and a bit of a disappointment, and we just wanted to get to our destination and find a beautiful alpine lake.

It was on the ridge that we noticed the first real clouds.  There have been clouds every day here, but it has only rained once, and the prediction that the storm wouldn’t arrive until night (it was only about 1:30) helped convince us to push onward.  This is where our stupidity took over.  We know now, and to be honest we knew then, we should have turned back at the first clouds but we were so close to our destination we decided to press onward.  I know that my hope of a quick skinny-dip and Amy’s desire to pick wild berries isn’t quite the same as the goal of summiting Everest, but I now have a little insight into that mindset that pushes people on when they know they should turn back.

Just as I took off my shirt, the first peel of thunder rolled over us.  We know that in a field with only one tree it’s not smart to sit under that tree in a thunderstorm, but what do you do when you’re in a forest?  We put on our jackets and hunkered down, making ourselves as small as possible and not getting too close to the trees.  On the other hand, it was the thought of returning over the ridgeline with no trees at all that scared us the most.

We debated what to do.  Every time we thought the lightning had stopped, and we decided to push onward, we’d hear more thunder.  Then there was the flash, very bright in the daylight, followed quickly by the thunder, and we knew we were in the middle of it.  Again, we’re cautious, and we had outer jackets, fleece jackets, and synthetic pants and socks (“cotton kills,” we were once told, because when it’s wet it doesn’t retain any heat) so while we were getting miserably wet we really didn’t think we were in much danger of dying of exposure.  Lightning yes, rain no.

The lightning seemed to have moved past us, so we hurried as fast as we could over the exposed section of the trail.  I’d have sworn it was longer coming back than going out, and unfortunately we couldn’t move as fast as we wanted because the mud, roots, and rocks all had turned very slick in the rain.  We heard thunder every few seconds, and I know I was trying to hunch as much as I could as I walked, though I doubted it would help.  I devoutly wished we had a Montenegrin or two with us, since they’re all so remarkably tall (we’ve read they are the tallest people in Europe).

Eventually, of course, we made it back into the forest and while we weren’t home yet (we still had more slick mud, roots, and rocks to get past), being in a forest in the thunderstorm seemed safe.  I mean, what are the odds of lightning striking the tree we happen to be walking by?  We made it back to the road into town and the same unjustified feeling of safety stayed with us.  Here we were walking around in a thunderstorm and feeling so comparatively safe that it just didn’t really register as being dangerous any more.

The weather this morning is much cloudier, but it could have been the best day of the year and it wouldn’t have shaken our desire to do laundry today.

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Durmitor Natl Park – Black Lake

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

We left Poros, caught the ferry to Athens, and from there took a train to Thessaloniki, which is in the region of Macedonia, in the north of Greece. From there we crossed the border into the country of Macedonia, which entered the U.N. as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) because Greece didn’t want it having the exact same name as one of its regions.

We spent the day in the capital, Skopje, before heading off on a night bus to Montenegro. We had to have gone through another country on the way, but to be honest, we don’t know whether we passed through Albania or Serbia.

Budva is a coastal resort town in Montenegro, and it wasn’t really what we were looking for. It had too much of a carnival atmosphere in town, probably due to the carnival in town. After two days of sitting on the beach, we were ready to move on.

A few hours of bus rides (from Budva to Podogorica, the capital, and Podgorica to Zabljak) got us to the Durmitor National Park. Durmitor was why we are here. We were looking for places to visit between Greece and Venice, and noticed Montenegro on the map. It was small, and the only thing I knew about it was that it was the birthplace of Nero Wolfe. But when we did image searches of Montenegro and Durmitor, we realized how incredibly beautiful the place was and that we had to visit. Zabljak is a town in the National Park itself and a jumping off place for day hikes or rafting. We’ve missed the mountains and are glad to be here.


IMG_2094

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

In Greece all of the toilets have signs above them instructing readers not to put tissue in the toilet. There is an accompanying drawing, with a red line through it, showing a hand dropping tissue and what appears to be a ketchup bottle into the toilet. My favourite sign, though, was on the door of a restaurant toilet. It read, “Please do not put anything in the toilet unless it has been eaten first.”

We had seen similar injunctions against putting tissue in the toilets in Turkey and Egypt. In some places the signs explain the tissue causes blockages, and we assumed it was because of the old plumbing. But then I noticed the same signs can be found in toilets on new Greek trains and ferries, so I decided this is just a trick played on unsuspecting tourists and there really is no trouble with the plumbing at all.

Most of Europe seems to have toilets like you’ll find in America, but in much of Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and even parts of Italy there are pit toilets, basically a hole in the floor to squat over. From what we’ve read, pit toilets are used throughout much of the world, so if you travel, get used to them.

We had a room in Piraeus, the port city next to Athens, for only two nights.  Everything we’d read about Athens described it as big, crowded, loud, and dirty, and said that visitors could  and should see the Acropolis in a single day, and then get out.  The Acropolis is magnificent, and duly impressive, and while it took us longer than it should have to find the entrance, we enjoyed our time seeing the Parthenon, the temples, and the ancient agora.  The food was better our first full day there than it had been on our arrival, so things were looking up.

The day after seeing the Acropolis, we headed to Poros, an island about 2.5 hours by ferry from Athens.  It had been recommended on the website of a travel writer on Greece because of its convenient location, good food, beautiful villages, and nice beaches.  Our ferry arrived on time and we fought our way past the crowds of tourists to eventually make our way to the Kichli Studios, where we had a reservation for five nights.  The trouble began when we got there.

A woman at Kichli said they had no room and when I explained we had a reservation, she called her husband, who apparently owned the place (and, it seemed from their website, at least two hotels).  He explained to me that we did have a reservation but there was a problem with the room so we would have to be moved to another property with a “good room, very good room.”  We waited a few minutes for our ride to the new property to arrive, and a man drove us to a hotel where we were to have our new room for the night.  After waiting about 2 hours we were told they didn’t have a room for us (they said a pipe burst in the room), and we were moved to yet another location for the night and told we’d be brought to the Kichli the next morning.  Of course, the next morning, the owner arrived to say the Kichli was still not available but we would stay at another place, where he would take us.

Thus began our love/hate relationship with Poros.  We loved the owner of the new property, the room, the food, and the sea.  But we hated the grumpy Greeks, the move to four rooms in 24 hours, the hours of waiting, and the move to a different village (which was nice but didn’t seem to have a bank machine or a laundromat, so we had to walk about 30 minutes dodging traffic on a road with few sidewalks just to get to the village we were originally meant to be in and which had these amenities).

Our last full day on Poros exemplified the dichotomy.  The food at lunch and dinner was some of the best we’d had, and our hostess Vicky kindly arranged a taxi to the ferry for us for the next morning.  But we had to walk into Poros Village (the main village) to drop off our laundry and when we arrived to pick it up at the time we’d been told it would be ready, the place was closed and the phone number provided on the door didn’t work, necessitating a return trip later in the day.

We also had to pick up Amy’s passport, which the owner of the Kichli had taken when he dropped us at our room. We had been told (though not by the owner at the time he took it) that the passport would be at one of his hotels, and though we asked a woman at the hotel to they wouldn’t deliver it to us, despite the fact that it was their doing that we were in a different location, in a different village even.  Since we were already in Poros Village for the laundry, we went to pick the passport up and pay for the room, only to be told the price had gone up, even though we had confirmed at the time we were dumped off that it would be the same price.  More waiting for the owner to arrive and declare the original price was good, so we paid and got the passport.  Waiting, feeling lied to and mistreated, and more waiting makes up a big part of our memories of Greece.

In the end, we felt Greece was the least pleasant country we have visited, but we knew we were visiting in high season, and one local said everyone got grumpy then.  Maybe a less touristy island (is there such a thing in Greece?) in a different season, and we would have enjoyed our time, but we were mostly happy to leave.

Some people say getting there is half the fun.  Those people are idiots.

Here’s a brief synopsis (is there a long kind?) of our trip from Madrid to Athens.  We discovered on our way to the airport we needed “supplemental tickets” to actually reach the Madrid airport on the metro, but not how or where to buy the tickets. Finding out how to buy the tickets required my buying another regular metro ticket to get back to the platform where Amy was waiting.

We went to the wrong terminal (our fault for not checking in advance) and had to ask twice for directions to the check-in counter, since there really are about a hundred of them at that particular terminal.  We couldn’t buy lunch before our flight because the restaurant lines didn’t move, and the screen which would eventually tell us which area and gate we would fly out of didn’t announce that information until right when it said we needed to board.  We ran to our gate and they didn’t start boarding for another half hour.

The armrest between our seats was missing (broken) and tape held together part of the armrest between me and the person in the aisle seat.  They served food on the plane, which Amy declared the worst plane food ever, which is saying something considering how much flying we’ve done over the last few years.  I said it filled an empty space as long as it stayed down, and pondered whether adding the moist towelette to the sandwich would help.  It didn’t.

We arrived in Athens, then went to find the bus to our hotel.  The hotel suggested telling the driver which stop we needed and to sit up close to him so he could tell us when to get off.  There were almost no seats near the driver (just space for luggage) and the only seats available were the very back seats on the double-length bus.  Since we were about 60 feet from the driver, we had to try to read Greek bus-stop signs in the few seconds it took to stop at each.

We got out one stop to the north of the suggested stop, then wandered around in circles trying to get any street sign to match the inadequate map we had.  We couldn’t ask for help because it was a national holiday and almost everything was closed.

Eventually finding the hotel, we dropped our bags and asked for a recommendation for dinner.  Because of the holiday, the woman at the counter suggested we head to the marina, where the tourist restaurants would still be open.  We began heading there but decided if we were going to get bad, expensive tourist food we might as well get it at the hotel restaurant.  There we ordered club sandwiches (there was no Greek food on the menu) and were served up the most pathetic attempts at club sandwiches ever – four pieces of toast, one thin slice of meat, and no bacon.  We were provided with some entertainment, though; while we ate, a man relieved himself across the street, outside the dining room window. Ah, the joy of travel!


Closed for the month of August

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Later this morning we fly from Madrid to Greece, so we wanted to share a few last thoughts about Spain and Spanish culture.

Closed

We had read that many countries virtually shut down in the summer as everyone closes shop and heads for cooler climes, but this is the first time we’ve actually experienced it. A few shops began to close in July, but on the first of August, the exodus began in earnest. Now, it’s not uncommon to walk down a street and see three or four shops in a row with signs in their windows saying they are closed for the month.

The Spanish are used to things closing down at inconvenient times, though. Many stores shut down for siesta from about 2 until 5 or 5:30, and then stay open until 8 or 9. Amy and I never quite adjusted to this schedule and would regularly find ourselves ready to run an errand at 2:30 only to realize nothing would be open.

Even the trash shuts down here. Our high-rise apartment building has a small courtyard in the middle of it where the trash bins are kept. The courtyard is locked every afternoon, reopens for a bit in the evening, and then closes again at night. It’s also locked on weekends, and tenants don’t have a key to get in. The first weekend we were here we realized this too late, and had a stinky bag of trash to throw away on Saturday morning. We tied it up tight and put in on the balcony.

Spanish Food

Amy’s tutor, Jesús, is a bit of a foodie, but he told her he prefers Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and other foreign foods to Spanish food, which is very simple and basic. He’s got a point. Spanish food is, for the most part, the same from restaurant to restaurant. You can get a few varieties of bocadillos (sandwiches) but they often consist of just slices of sausage or cured ham on a roll. There are tapas (basically appetizers) but most places seem to serve the same varieties as every other place. You can find paella, but it’s more of a regional dish from Valencia.

Spanish food isn’t very spicy, either. Any thoughts you may have that Spanish food is like Mexican food should be banished. People cook with what they have, and there must be a lot more hot spices in Mexico than in Spain.

Hanging Out

In much of America, most socializing happens at home, whether at a dinner, a party, a barbecue, or simply a night in to watch movies or play games. In Ireland, most socializing happens in pubs, where there might be live music or a rugby match on TV, but it’s not really necessary to have an excuse to go to your local and have a drink. In Spain, socializing happens outside.

It’s not unusual to stroll the streets at 11 p.m. and pass groups of octogenarians sitting on benches, chatting away. Walk by any park any evening and it will be packed with people of all ages talking with friends and neighbours. Stop at a plaza (which you’ll find every few blocks), and not only will there be dozens of people sitting on benches, but many others leaning out over the balconies of the high rise apartment buildings overlooking the plaza.

The weather being so warm (often hot) in Spain is undoubtedly one reason for this outdoor culture. Try sitting on a park bench in Cork and you’ll get your butt wet most days, but lounging in a park in the evening breeze is a pleasant way to pass the evening in Madrid. Also, in a big city like Madrid, there are no yards, so getting outside means being in a public place.

For many years, I thought the only significant difference between Spain Spanish and Latin American Spanish was the Spaniards’ preference for the vosotros conjugation of verbs.  In actual fact, there are not only several different Spanish accents (think Irish vs. British vs. American), there are also different languages spoken here, such as Basque and Catalan.

A friend of ours from Valladolid, the birthplace of Castilian Spanish, gave us our first lesson in the Spanish language when she pointed out that people from the Andalucía region have a very different accent from the rest of the country.  This was confirmed during a conversation with a man from Jerez earlier this summer.  He said that the Andalucían accent sounds more like what you would hear in Latin America.  As a matter of fact, most of the Spanish conquistadors came from Andalucía so it really makes sense that Latin American Spanish sounds more Andalucían than Castilian.

In addition to different accents and languages, there are many colloquialisms and slang words that are specific to the different regions of the country.  Misunderstandings can and do occur on many levels.

During our daily pop purchases, as we walked out of the small shops around Madrid we would often hear the shop keepers say, “Salo”.  Neither of us had heard this Spanish word before, but made the assumption that it must be a Spanish colloquialism for “Good-bye” or “See you later”. Naturally, we responded in kind.

We both tried googling our new found Spanish term, but the only match we could find was a small coastal Spanish village called Salou near Tarragona.  We had no luck when we tried various spellings on a Spanish to English dictionary website either.

Fortunately, we have a Spanish connection:  my teacher, Jesús.  When I asked him about the word and what it meant he seemed confused at first.  Then, with a smile, he explained that they were saying, “Hasta luego”, but because the Spaniards talk so quickly, to our untrained ears it sounded like, “Salo”.

Pat and I have both tried to speed up our “Hasta luego”, but it never sounds like “Salo” no matter how fast we try to speak.  When I hear it from a local though, it still sounds like “Salo” to me.