Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Walkin' in the Balkans

With some annual leave days left and the end of service nearing, an out-of-country excursion made perfect sense for the long Easter week off this year. Romania is the place to be for Easter celebrations so we had to be back in country by Holy Thursday. A six-day leave was in session starting on Friday with our early morning train departing from Timisoara into Serbia and ending with a leisurely walk across the border back into Romania the following Thursday.

Yes, I know that after my last venture into Serbia I swore never to return. I lied. Since the last trip there for NYE 2009 my curiosity in the region has been growing. My wonderful experiences in Turkey have helped to peak my interest in Sarajevo, another city where east meets west. Serbia was the necessary stopping point on the way to and from Sarajevo, and under much more ideal conditions my visit to the country that US and NATO planes bombed in the semi-recent past ended up shedding a positive light on the country. Successfully finding our hostel is just one of a few more positive conditions this time around.

Less than ideal was the transportation situation. Train connections left my travel buddy and me sitting in a gas station for hours missing some much needed sleep before even leaving Romania. If one was to look at the distance from Belgrade to Sarajevo on a map they would certainly not say that it takes 10 hours to get from one to the other by train. Unfortunately that is what the man selling the tickets says as you're handing over your money. At least it didn't cost much. Though a collective 20 hours of daylight lost in transportation leaves a sour taste in the mouth of just about any traveler, it didn't seem all that bad. The compartments were surprisingly spacious and the train was not at all crowded leaving us time and space to catch up on sleep and admire the passing countryside. There really wasn't all that much to see until we entered Bosnia-Herzegovina where hills began to rise up giving us a slightly more entertaining country-side to look at and exposing some small villages to our view. I noticed that the country houses in Bosnia were much larger than those in Romania but they didn't appear to be entirely finished. They were surely livable but the bricks and cement in-between were left uncovered. The poverty visible from the train while leaving Belgrade was unseen as we pulled into Sarajevo, though the destruction caused by the war was already visible.

Sarajevo is a small European capital made famous by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which helped to kick off the First World War. My original draw to the Bosnia-Herzegovina capital actually came after visiting Turkey. While talking up Istanbul I remember somebody mentioning that I can get a bit of that Ottoman feel in another European city where it mixes in with some other cultural elements. Originally built by the Ottomans, the oldest part of the city has that bazaar feel with the occasional Mosque. Moving west through the town's center you quickly find yourself surrounded by the architectural influences of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Finally as you continue on into newer parts of town you see the communist influences in the architecture. Though the city appears to be predominately Muslim the old center holds both Catholic and Serbian Orthodox cathedrals along with several smaller mosques and a large synagogue. Our apartment was about half a kilometer up the hill from the Latin Bridge, the sight were the Archduke was shot.

We spent most of our Sarajevo time wandering. The first morning we headed up the hill at the end of town where we found some great views, the city gate, some ruins of a fortress, and a large bombed out building. From that hill we could see in one direction roads pointing through a beautiful mountain pass and in the other direction, the city. The city was in a valley with houses crowding the hill-sides. I could picture Serbian artillery perched on the high ridges above the city. From 1992 to 1995 the city was under siege by Serb forces. Visible signs of the siege can be seen in the large bombed out building at the top of the hill, bullet holes peppering the sides of many of the downtown buildings, the memorial to the children who were killed, and the Sarajevo rose. After lunch our wanderings continued past the souvenir vendors into the crowded walking streets with the occasional terasa where Italian coffee was the drink of choice. We passed both the Catholic and the Serbian Orthodox cathedrals. There was a group of older men playing chess in the park just in front of the Serbian Orthodox church. The chess pieces had to be three feet tall. That evening we returned to the old Ottoman section of town where we entered a bar to get something light to eat and a drink. The owner of the bar insisted that we share a table with some others downstairs rather than stay alone on the second floor. It ended up being a great idea as some local musicians drinking at the end of the room picked up instruments and began playing and singing.

During one of the days we took a two and a half hour morning bus ride to Mostar. Mostar is the largest city in the region of Herzegovina and I had no clue it existed until about two months ago when I asked some fellow volunteers about their trip to Sarajevo. They told me that I had to check out Mostar. The bus ride took us past some mountain villages and into a long beautiful gorge where we followed a turquoise river under rocky walls and jagged peaks. It was significantly warmer in Mostar than in Sarajevo. The sun was shining as we strolled over old stone streets through a courtyard of a mosque and a bazaar. Finally the view opened up to show the famous bridge (stari most) in the center of the old city. It was a stunning sight connecting two rock fortresses hanging high above the fast flowing water of the Neretva River. In a couple of locations I found stones with the phrase "Don't Forget" painted on them referring to the 1993 destruction of the bridge by the Croatian Defense Counsel. I wonder why I only saw it painted in English and not say... Croatian, Bosnian, or Serbian. After some Cevapi for lunch we went down to the water where we found a rock to relax on, dip our feet in, and admire the bridge from below. After more roaming, a drink, and watching a man jump from the high bridge we made our way back to the bus station to conclude our day trip to Mostar.

The final evening in Sarajevo was my favorite. After a traditional coffee we grabbed a couple beers at a supermarket and headed up the hill to check out the sunset. Though it was quite chilly, the city looked really nice as night fell down over the minarets, church steeples, and skyscrapers in the distance. After descending back into town we entered a hookah bar where we sat and chatted with some Bosnians and Turks for the last couple of hours before concluding our final evening in Sarajevo.

Back to Belgrade we went, another day lost to a 10 hour train ride. Such a train ride isn't so bad with good company and a good book handy. I had started a book about environmental conservation given to me by a fellow volunteer. That evening in Belgrade we hung out at the hostel again. The first time through we had stayed there in the common room chatting with three Americans, a few Slovenians, and an Israeli. We were surprised to see that the Israeli was still there when we came back through. I stayed up late into the night with him and the hostel night guy discussing the region and its history.

The final day of our Balkan excursion was dedicated to getting back to Romania. We made a last day decision to try hitching back. Admittedly the highway ramp hitching point was a bit sketchy but with a destination sign and a few pointers from locals we picked up our first ride for about 12kms. The man was very kind. He attempted to communicate with us showing us a map with where we needed to go, and dropping us off at the right spot without accepting any money. From there we found a Romanian driver to the border, walked across the border, and caught another Romanian driver to Timisoara. It was kind of an adventure getting back but I am happy that we decided to come back by car if just to have a break from train travel.

This latest trip has helped peak my interest in the countries that once made up Yugoslavia. Last time leaving Serbia I vowed never to return and this time I left discussing the next trip to the region. Maybe next time we'll make it to Montenegro, Kosovo, or Croatia.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Remembering the Great Finger Lakes region of New York State

It has been almost 23 months since I left New York state bound for Romania. They say that you don't know what you have until it's gone. That idea brings back memories of sitting around the skate park, the lunch table, or the classroom during my high school years. "First chance I get, I'm out of here," so many of my friends would say. "What does Corning have to offer me? Its too small. Everybody knows your business. There's nothing to do here." There arguments were pretty convincing. Their dreams of bigger and better places would get to me at times, especially on those rainy days that we saw so much of in upstate. For me it didn't take leaving to realize what I had, just a bit of growing up. By the time I left for California in the fall of 2008, my first real move out of the region, I was fully aware of all the great things that my part of the world had to offer.

It was during the college years that I got out and learned to love the great Finger Lakes region of New York. In the summers I held various jobs. My last two summers in town were spent working in museums where I had the chance to speak with outsiders and promote the beauties of my small little town. Friends and I would eagerly await the weekend when we would go to some of the great bars on market street or take evening bike rides. Some of the best times were when we had a common day off to trip it to Ithaca where we would discover one of the state parks, sit by the lake, or walk slowly through the commons. I can't give enough credit to the grad student at Cortland that offered me my first backpacking trip to the Adirondacks nearby. My finger lakes places were Ithaca, Cortland, Watkins Glen, and Keuka College where I visited Colin on a number of occasions.

During my time in Romania memories of those beautiful state parks have come frequently to put a smile on my face. I live in a part of Romania that has much of its own natural beauty. When I moved in with my host in Targoviste I was prepared with a picture book of the Finger Lakes region to give to them as a gift. As my parents were putting together a box of things to send me and they mentioned giving something to Ernest, that Finger Lakes picture book was the first thing that popped into my head. He loves being in nature and taking pictures of nature. "Rain or shine it's a sin to stay in the house all day," claims Ernest from time to time. As the region I live in now sits at a higher elevation than the one I left in New York, my outdoor adventures typically yield different views and a different feel. This past weekend Ernest took me on a new hike. (After a year and a half of going on hikes whenever I get the chance, there are still new trails to discover here.) This latest hike reminded me most of those gorge trails that I saw so much of in my college years.

It started out like a lot of other hikes that we've done. Really the first half of the hike I've probably done 8 or 9 times. There was a bus to Lupeni, a quick spin through the piata (market) and a 3-4 hours of walking up hill to Straja. The hike up actually follows stations of the cross. The first station is right outside of Lupeni and the final one is at the small church up at the ski area. With a number of switch-backs along the way we would periodically enter in the woods to take a shortcut. Along the way we stopped at a spring that was covered in leaves from the previous fall. I brushed the knee-high pile of leaves out of the way to fill up my bottle. Like every other trip to Straja we entered the first cabana on the right where we sat, rested, and chatted over a drink. Up until that strawberry banana juice things had seemed just like they always had, aside from the strong wind gusts. This area of Romania is pretty well protected by the mountains and therefore we do not get a whole lot of wind. During this particular hike the wind was the strongest that I have seen it in the Jiu Vally.

After our drinks the adventure began for me. We entered the forest on a new trail, going in a new direction, and I was excited to see some new things. It wasn't long before I noticed that that particular trail was quite steep. Not many people know about that trail which it is evident, as it was not always easy to find our way even though it was marked quite well. It took about 45 minutes to get to our lunch spot. Just before the lunch area we climbed down a steep part of the trail where I was forced to use both arms and legs to ensure my stability. Those are the parts of the trail that I like the most. The lunch spot was marked by a wooden table and bench that, despite their weight, had both been blown over due to the strong wind gusts that day. We sat there bundled up, our plastic bags weighed down, eating our slanina, onion, and bread as the wind beat against our backs.

The couple of hours of hiking after lunch led us through the forest and back to Lupeni as we came out near the chair lift. During those couple of hours I was reminded of the Finger Lakes region more than I have been yet in Romania. There were no large lakes nearby but the trail ran along a steep slope parallel to the stream below. The steep rocky slopes running along-side the stream with its waters cutting through rocks and tumbling down into open pools all reminded me of the gorge trails of Rock stream, Truman, and Buttermilk. After our lunch break the trail continued down a steep slope and across a small bridge over a stream. A little further down the trail we stopped and looked back to view a waterfall. Looking back upstream there were two more waterfalls in the distance that we had already passed without realizing. Following that stream a little further we came upon a larger stream with an even larger waterfall standing at about five meters in height. The next resting stop was about 45 minutes of slow hiking away. The red point trail followed the stream but we were forced to move at a slow pace due to the leaf coverage on the trail. There were parts where the leaves were several feet deep with rocks and branches hidden underneath. Eventually we arrived at a spot where the red point trail turned uphill circling back to Straja.

After a short break of eating delicious kiwis we continued on as the trail followed along-side the stream high up on the slope. We climbed over rocks, under branches, along steep slopes and finally we passed through a tunnel to the finish. Periodically we looked back to see the stream with its pools and waterfalls each time taking me back to the great Finger Lakes region of New York State.