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Now with pictures: Friendship and War in Sarajevo –

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One of my classes last semester covered politics in the Balkans, and I was particularly fascinated by the break-up wars of the former Yugoslavia.  I wrote a term paper on the post-war situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and was excited to get back (after spending about 12 hours there last fall) and see how much of a discrepancy there was between my research and the actual situation in Sarajevo.

After we met our apartment host at the Holiday Inn (a huge yellow can’t miss building built for the 1984 Olympics) the problems I wrote about became apparent.  The route from the landmark hotel to our apartment should have been really fast, except that there was a protest by the Parliament building which forced us to take a more confusing, roundabout route.  The Bosnians were protesting the government’s failure to assign national identity numbers to newborns for the last six months.  The situation came to a head when a baby requiring urgent medical treatment in Italy couldn’t leave the country because it didn’t have a passport.  The numbers weren’t issued because of disagreement between the Bosnian entity and the Repbulik Srpska (the two major legal entities that comprise the country of BH) about how to assign the numbers.  So while the politicians failed to reach a compromise, the demonstrations grew larger.  My paper argued that the constitution’s primary focus on ethnic representation almost guaranteed an ineffective government incapable of ruling.  Unfortunately, tons of small issues like the identity numbers show that this is still the case.

After showing us the ins and outs of the apartment  our host brought us up to some hills above the city so we could learn the overall layout.  We also got some of his perspective of the war and the current political state.  He’s a Bosniak, but prefers not to mention his identity.  This, as well as a desire to move past the war and get on with life, was prevalent amongst all of the younger people that we met.

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There are so many reminders in the city of the war (from 1992-1995, mostly while I was in high school) throughout the city that it takes real fortitude and optimism to move forward.  The Holiday Inn, where we met our host, is also where the war started.  Serbian politicos staying there started firing from its roof on Bosniaks demonstrating for independence.

The main road running through Sarajevo was called Sniper’s Alley, since the Serbs controlled the hills on one side and would try to pick off people.  One guy joked that Bosnians drive so fast and crazily now because during the siege, their lives depended on it!

We ate dinner at the Sarajevo Brewery, where the beer and food is especially good.  The dark brew is only sold at the brewery and definitely worth a stop!  During the siege, the brewery was the only facility that produced drinking water.  Otherwise, Sarajevo residents risked sniper fire to get water from springs or dug through underground pipes to find a viable tap.


a really big veal shank at the Sarajevo brewery

“Sarajevo roses” mark spots where three or more people were murdered during the siege.  Red paint fills bullet holes and shell craters on the city’s sidewalks, buildings, and roads to memorialize the victims.  Last year, to commemorate the 20th anniversary, over 11000 red chairs, representing every man, woman or child killed, were lined up on one of the main streets.  As a visitor to Sarajevo, the war is fascinating, but I can imagine that for a resident its constant reminders become tiresome.

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look on the sidewalk – a few roses

I really admired our guide to the Airport Tunnel for her ability to relive the war experience on a daily basis for tourists like us.  Along with giving us the basic history of the war, she pointed out the sites along the way from Old Town to the tunnel museum.  On the way back, she freely answered all of our groups’ questions about living through the war.  I asked about daily life under the siege.  As a child, she attended school in the basement of the apartment building.  Over the years, she was able to carry bigger and bigger bottles of water up the many flights of stairs to her family’s apartment.  When she and her mother finally escaped the siege through the tunnel, she carried a heavy pack on her back the whole way.

Although we only walked through about 20 meters of the tunnel, with the help of the artifacts at the museum, and a video of footage from the war, we got a real feel for the siege.  It was 1425 days – longer than the siege on Leningrad in WWII.  The people lived without water, gas, or electricity and under constant threat of sniper attack.  To go through the tunnel, you had to obtain permission from the military or civilian authorities, which sometimes took up to six months.  And even if you managed to get out of Sarajevo, the tunnel was only the first step.  Next you had to somehow get through the mountains in the middle of the night, and on to Montenegro or Croatia (when it wasn’t fighting its own skirmishes).

The best part of our stay in Sarajevo, however, was hanging out with my amazing friend Maja.  I met her in Turkish class in Ankara last summer and loved her contagious playfulness and spirit.  She took us to her friend’s cafe, out for cevap (very similiar to Turkish kebab), and for the best chicken sandwich in the world (this was my second tasting, and I can confirm that it’s still amazing!).  On our last night we joined her and her friends at a cafe to watch the Bosnia-Latvia football match (that’s soccer for my American friends).  At first, the mood was tense as nobody knew what would happen, but elation quickly set in as Bosnia scored goal after goal for a final score of 5-0!  With each goal scored, the whole cafe celebrated, and we heard people up and down the street singing and carrying on.  I just shook my head with my awesome new hat, courtesy of Maja.

A Walk Through Sibenik, Croatia

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The ancient Croatians built splashbacks in their corners into to prevent public urination!

Between our national park excursions, Kim and I stopped in Sibenik for lunch and a walk. Sibenik is captivating – I was there breifly last fall (see and have some pictures on that post from the inside of the Cathedral of St. James, a UNESCO heritage site. Since neither of us felt like paying money to enter another church, we walked around the outside instead. I had time to marvel at all the carved heads that surround the cathedral. Instead of being based on saints or prominent politicians, the architect modeled the heads on the townspeople and a few pets – look out for the dogs and lions (or really ugly folks)!

With time on our hands, Kim and I took a walk through town by the best tour guide available: our own curiosity.

In addition to all the beautiful streets, we found an old monastery, some churches (the town has 25!) and a graveyard.

Unfortunately the caste of St. Michael is under renovation, but we did get nice views while we were evaluating climbing the construction fence to check it out. We decided not to trespass when all the workers started staring us down.

Of course, after rolling through some gardens and beautiful streets, we did spend a fair amount of time in a shoe store after I spied a pair of green suede loafers in the window. Four pairs of shoes bought later, we got some ice cream and called it a day.

Waterfalls Everywhere – Plitvice National Park, Croatia

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Although Kim and I were impressed by Krka, Plitvice National Park blew our minds.  After figuring out the parking, tickets, and entrance shenanigans (why is it always so confusing?) we boarded a bus to start our day at the upper falls.

At the beginning of the hike, it seems like a serene park, with a beautiful lake full of ducks and fish.

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As we turned a bend on the path, we suddenly heard the roar of the falls.  There are so many waterfalls in this park that you grow numb to the constant noise.

The park is so fun to walk because there are boardwalks right over the falls and across lakes throughout the park.  Of course, if you get stuck behind slow people or a really big tour group on one of these narrow paths, you just have to hang around and take pictures while you wait.

Some of the nature we saw along the way:

At one point we climbed up into a cave where a unique scorpion hangs out, which I’m almost relieved that we didn’t see!  We did get a break from all the noise and even though it was a workout, climbing the steps was worth it for the silence and a different view.

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Can you get tired of waterfalls?  I have to admit that at each new fall, I was a little less impressed.  Once we took a boat down the lake to the bigger falls, however, I perked up again.  The sun started to peek through the clouds and the water’s color shifted from dark to all kinds of greens and blues.  Every blue-green shade you can imagine, from turquoise to cerulean to jade, could be found.  I started thinking about a box of 64 crayons, which I was so proud to own as a kid, and how in just this tiny piece of earth nature far surpassed Crayola’s impressive offerings.

When we reached the largest falls of the park, we quickly decided to hike up some stairs in order to escape a huge group of squealing schoolkids.  It was a difficult climb, but worth it for what Kim had described as a cheater view (she thought that the picture on the brochure was definitely taken by a helicopter).

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me and Kim

After a day’s hiking, we returned to our hotel for showers and a nap. Then we went in search of dinner. The night before we had a really impressive meal at our inn, but we could barely even attack the entree plate, so to save some euros, we decided to go out. Of course we’re in the middle of nowhere, Croatia, at 8 o’clock at night. Every little town along the road had tons of inns or b&bs, but no restaurants. We turned around a few times and backtracked to the only restaurant near the park’s entrance. At first they showed us the cafeteria line, where every offering looked positively dismal. We decided to go a la carte in the actual restaurant. I just wanted soup and salad, and Kim ordered grilled squid. The waitress asked me a few questions in Croatian, which since I didn’t understand I just nodded my head. It turned out we ordered two squid entrees, and my salad came on the side. Although I would never think to order squid in the middle of a forest in Croatia, it was the best either of us had ever had! Sometimes these things just work out.

Krka National Park – Waterfalls and a Really Big Lake

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For our day at Krka National Park, we got up reasonably early (for us) and headed out.  Although we were following the signs, we eventually reached that inevitable fork in the road where both roads lead to the national park.  This time we had actually done a little homework, and knew that we wanted to see the park a certain way, so we headed toward what we thought was the southern entrance (it’s really easy to get confused on these mountain roads).

After driving around the town for a while, looking for obvious signs of the national park entrance, we gave up and parked the car in a town lot and started walking.  In these situations, where you’re pretty sure what you’re looking for is nearby, but really unsure how to find it, it’s best to follow the German tourists.  They’re the ones who look really put together, outfitted with whatever technical gear is required for the activity, and marching with confidence toward every tourist attraction in the world.  They led us right to the ticket booth with perfect timing – we had eight minutes to board our boat and head up the gorge to the park.

Once you find the ticket office and board the boat, life is easy.  Cliffs rise up both sides of the gorge and if you look closely you can find some birds and small wildlife along the way – it was all so very relaxing.  The first sight in the park is a large waterfall.  As large parts of Europe are experiencing the highest water levels in 500 years this summer, the water here was at the highest level anyone in the park remembered!  It reminded me of Hawaii, where new waterfalls spring up after each rain.

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After being amazed with the waterfalls for a while, we finally figured out how to take a boat up to the monastery and upper falls.  Here’s some nature we saw along the way:


Sights from the boat:

And a swan song while we waited for our boat:

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We stopped briefly at a monastery built on a rock island.  Since the 1300s, it cycled through different Catholic orders, and under Ottoman rule was alternately destroyed and reconstructed.  It fell again in the Homeland War between Croatia and Serbia/Yugoslavia, and was finally reopened in 2001.

With more scenery, we finally reached the upper falls and the source of all the water!

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There was also an old millhouse with a few historical exhibits.

We luckily made it back in time to hike down the gorge and catch the last boat back to parking.  While eating dinner that night, a really exhausted German couple sat next to us and told us they had missed the boat and were forced to walk for an hour just to get out of the park!  Extra bonus: because our car was parked longer than the lot attendant worked, parking was free for the day – score!

Rainy Day Redeemed by Beautiful Twilight in Broadarica, Croatia

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After Dubrovnik, we headed inland to check out some of Croatia’s national parks, Krka and Plitvice (pronounced Plitvitze – the c is like a “tz”).  Keeping with the apartment rental trend, we stayed at a guest cottage in the fishing village of Brodarica, which is about a 20 minute drive from the park.   After Dubrovnik, rain and cloudy weather mired a lot of our plans and squashed our spirits.  As the sky grew dark, we put the top up  and settled for some pretty crappy burgers at a cheap outside grill for lunch a couple of hours north of the city.

We finally reached Brodarica and almost drove through it before we realized we had missed the turn to our place.  Using a combination of the GPS (where the roads are), downloaded google maps on an ipad (where we should be), and the little blue dot on my phone (where we actually are), we finally realized we had to turn down what looked like a driveway in order to reach the place.  Hidden off the main road was a pleasant street curving along with the bay where nearly every house posted a “sobe/zimmer” (rooms for rent) sign.  After we found ours and started the requisite charging, we ate at a local pizza joint, grabbed breakfast items at the market, and then rushed home to grab our cameras to shoot what we could of an awesome sunset over the bay.  Here’s a shameless slideshow of my shots:

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Dubrovnik – the Pearl of the Adriatic

I was very sad last fall when I had to skip the Dubrovnik stop of my Croatia trip to start classes in Turkey – so naturally this summer it was the first stop on our trek through Croatia.  Lodging in Dubrovnik is expensive, so we rented an apartment slightly outside and uphill from the city walls with a decent view from the terrace.

view from the apt terrace

view from the apt terrace

After a hellacious drive from Macedonia (see, Kim and I were ready for a relaxing day.  Dubrovnik is perfect for that.  We slept in and then grabbed lunch at the first decent restaurant we found.  Once again, we hadn’t figured out the $$ situation, but luckily in most of Croatia, especially the cities, they’re happy to take your credit cards.

I had really wanted to kayak around the city walls, but even though in these pictures it looks sunny and beautiful, it was kind of cold and windy.  We nixed that plan and walked the city walls instead – this gave us great views and ideas of where to go drinking later.  We found a perfect cliffside bar where we could watch the kayakers struggle against the waves and congratulate ourselves on our prudent decision to drink wine instead.

Scenes from the castle wall walk:

To find this wonderful cliffside bar, go back into the deep waterside corner of the city and start following the signs for a great view.  A friend just told me that if it’s warm, you can dive right off the rocks closer to the water – sounds like a perfect day!

Once we had a few drinks, we realized that the music was on a continuous loop, and we had sung along to Journey’s greatest hits a few times already.  We went back into the town for more shopping and dinner.  Unfortunately a lot of the shops we had planned on hitting up were closed (travel lesson: when you see something you like, buy it now!) so we just wandered the town and took more pics.

Even though I had some restaurant recommendations from my godmother, we eventually really needed a bathroom and got a table at the first restaurant we found since none of the public W.C.s were nearby.  It turned out to be a perfect choice!  We both tried scorpion fish for the first time, scored great wine, and clowned around with the staff.  They even brought me a blanket when it got chilly!

All the wine was really helpful when we had to climb something like 155 steps back to our place.  Playing b’diddle and singing schfifty-five all the way up made it so easy!

Playing with Peacocks at a Monastery in Macedonia

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For a couple of girls who have been around the world more than a few times, Kim and I can be really stupid when planning a trip or just plain traveling.  Since we dubbed this month our Balkan Road Trip, our first stop after Thessaloniki was Macedonia, which was also our first country from former Yugoslavia.  We had driven  through beautiful twisty mountains and some Macedonian countryside when we both suddenly realized that we were very, very hungry.  Although it should be pretty simple to get food, we had a few problems: no Macedonian money in a cash-only area, no more Euros, and no idea of the conversion rate.  So we kept driving while searching for banks.  When we finally found one, I pushed one of the middle buttons and hoped it would be enough and not too much for a night’s stay on Lake Ohrid.

A friend had told us about Ohrid and the lake, so we planned to check it out.  After we found a really cool monastery hotel on the lake and made a reservation, we put Ohrid into the GPS.  It got us as far as the outskirts of Ohrid, then went to that pesky little arrow on a blank background that essentially gives you no information beyond your cardinal heading.   Since the lake wasn’t that big, we reasoned, we’d drive around until we found lunch, or the hotel.  An hour later, we were still driving around, and still hungry.  We didn’t even realize until the next day, when we hit a border crossing, that the lake is actually shared by two countries, Macedonia and Albania.

We were long past the old town of Ohrid but still on a quest to find our monastery with little more information that its name when we  found a national park map that confirmed two things: Lake Ohrid is really big and we weren’t there yet.  Luckily there was only one real road, so at least we we still headed in the right direction.   Maybe another thirty minutes after our the map eased our nerves we reached the St. Neum monastery and hotel.

Then we had to pay 50 dinar to enter the street that our hotel anchored. Since we still had no idea how much that actually was, we forked it over in order to get change.  When we did finally reach our hotel, we went though the now familiar post-communist procedure of trying to find the right piece of paper.  We mentioned that we had a booking, which prompted the clerk to look through her stack of reservations.  She didn’t understand when we explained that we had booked directly with the hotel, through email, and continued to shuffle through her papers. Finally, she gave up on finding our reservation and told us the rate for a twin room, which turned out to be per person, was not as cheap as we thought.  There is a big difference between 38 euros and 76 euros, but since we had already driven out there, well past the rest of civilization, we decided to stay.  Really, we just wanted to drop our bags and get some lunch already.

Although the St. Neum Monastery is really beautiful, and the food at the restaurant is decent and well-priced, I recommend you stay somewhere else if you’ve ever seen the Shining.  Since we were the only guests, we had to turn on lights in corridors on our way to the room and around the hotel. I seriously expected to see twins riding tricycles as we turned every corner.

After we got some lunch, Kim and I walked around the monastery and gardens. It’s all very impressive, but it’s hard to pay attention to the history, legends and architecture because there are scene-stealing peacocks all over the place!

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St. Neum is the most beloved saint in Macedonia, and the chapel is said to have withstood several fires that destroyed most of its surroundings, furthering his legend.  St. Neum was a doctor who travelled the Lake Ohrid area providing care, and who built the original church which has since been rebuilt several times over.

When we could finally tear ourselves away from the peacocks, Kim and I headed down the little street to shop, bought some Ohrid pearls, and then took a guy up on an offer of a boat ride though the Springs of the Black Drim, which is a beautiful creek with clean, clear water fed from thousands of springs and pores in the limestone mountains of the area.   I have never seen water so clear or so many springs in one place.

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We spent the rest of the day walking the shore and playing with our cameras. Even though we were stuck, by our own lack of planning, in a small area, it was beautiful.

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Thessaloniki, Greece – first stop on the Balkan Loop road trip

I’m a little behind on blogging our road trip – actually, I’m just starting right now with Day 1: Ankara, Turkey to Thessaloniki, Greece.  I also decided to skip the last couple of weeks in Ankara – I’ll catch them on the flip side, maybe some time this fall.

My friend Kim and I wanted to see the Balkans and originally planned to drive up through Bulgaria and make a loop from east to west, going as far north as Hungary.  Of course our plans were a little ambitious to start, and we cut out several stops and then reversed the entire direction of the trip when one of our free lodging sites had a schedule change.  So instead, we’re heading west to east, and the last stop before returning to Turkey will be Bulgaria.  I think the only casualty of this plan is the weather.  We’ve been suffering through rain and cloudy white skies through most of Croatia.

Google maps and the gps predicted a 10 hour drive from Ankara to Thessaloniki, and we think we did it in 12 – we had some leisurely stops for lunch and dinner.  The drive itself was pretty easy – mostly highways with clear directions and the gps telling us which lane to get in when the route became confusing.  Actually, the most confusing part was the border checkpoint, where Turkey has a huge set-up with all kinds of buildings where you have to stop, and then Greece has several soldier checkpoints that tell you to keep driving, keep driving, until eventually somebody looked at our passports.   We were pretty exhausted by Greece and decided to get dinner in Alexandropoulis, where my love of Greek food was reaffirmed.  I had been dreaming of lots of salad and warm country bread all day, and that’s exactly what we got at a beautiful seaside cafe with a warm owner.

In Thessaloniki, we stayed in Ladadika, the old warehouse section of town that’s been transformed into a nightlife hub.  Our hotel was super-cheap and included breakfast and lots of free wine – can’t go wrong there!  Of course, our room looked like a bordello and parts of it smelled like cat food, but it worked for us!

Thessaloniki is a beautiful city with a real cafe culture.  If you’re ever tired, thirsty, or just lazy, you won’t go far before you find a place to sit down and relax while people bring you drinks.  If you’re hungry, on the other hand, you might have to walk forever, as we did, to find a cafe serving more than just toast to accompany the coffee.  After touring some ruins, we finally found a place where people were eating real food!  We ordered by pointing at the other table with food and saying I wanted this and that – I thought I had gotten us a salad, some bread, and a few kofte, but the food just kept coming out!  It was all amazing, except, at least according to Kim, way too salty.  For me, that’s where all the flavor is!  Also, sorry to all my friends from other olive-producing places, but Greek olive is pretty amazing!

Unfortunately the path from our neighborhood to the main cafe district was infested with these Jamaican guys – I finally learned to say that I only speak Finnish, which very few street people can match (definitely don’t go with English, German, or French).  I’m still not sure if they were selling something or just really advanced at panhandling.  Basically, they’d come up, offer a free friendship bracelet and tie it on in about two seconds.  Step 2, flattery: they’d tell you how beautiful you are, and how they hope to meet somebody half as gorgeous very soon.  Then the pitch – to donate money for their music.  They had some fliers about a Jamaican party boat that they waved around but never really mentioned.  Our first guy wouldn’t take no for an answer, and kept asking for money from the goodness of our hearts.  Apparently our hearts are pretty hard, because when we finally convinced him that we weren’t giving him any $$$, he cut off our bracelets.  Oh well – Kim didn’t even like hers!  Of course, they could strategize a little better – Kim and I still had yet to get to an ATM or get pocket coins, so we actually had no money to give even if we had wanted to.

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I’m one of those people who loves graffiti, and Greece definitely has some good stuff.  Here’s a few of my favorites from around Thessaloniki:

Before you think that all we did in Thessaloniki was sit at cafes, drink coffee and wander off in search of food, don’t worry – we did stumble on some city ruins from the various civilizations that have occupied the city.  Like many other cities in this part of the world, most of the civilizations we studied in sixth grade ruled Thessaloniki at one time or another.  It started out as a Greek city state founded by Cassander of Macedon, then became Roman, then a free state.  In 900 AD, it started getting sacked, by the likes of the Arabs, Goths, Normans, and finally the Turks.  Known as Salonika, Thessaloniki was part of the Ottoman Empire until it fell back into Greek hands during the First Balkan War.  The city shifted hands several times during the first half of the 20th century but is now firmly Greek.  After a great fire in 1917 and then an earthquake in 1978, a lot of the original city was destroyed.

Still, we managed to find an old hamam under renovation, where no one stopped us as we wandered through and took pictures.  This is pretty neat, since hamams in operation usually ban cameras for privacy reasons.

Later we found the old Agora.  What’s left is mostly from Roman times:

My favorite part of the day was visiting Ataturk’s childhood home.  It’s attached to the Turkish Consulate and surrounded by police, so we walked around the perimeter a couple of times before somebody told us to ring the bell – so obvious!  Unfortunately the house is under renovation, but I got to practice Turkish with all the guards and a guy from the consulate who gave us a quick history of the place then took our picture.  Even in Greece, the Turks are super-friendly!

And some other sites around the city:

Macedonia to Albania to Montenegro to Croatia: Easy Day!

Google maps said it would take 7 hours, which we thought was pretty reasonable for a long driving day from Macedonia to Croatia.  In one of those rare instances in which Google maps was wrong, the trip took us over 12 hours!

Mostly this is our own fault, as we relied on the GPS to get us across all of southeastern Europe and only found out, near where we stayed in Macedonia, that there is no map information for this part of the world.  Instead, the screen displays a rough outline of the entire country, and a little arrow, pointed in the direction of travel, shows our location.  Occasionally, we would make a wrong turn and get a voice correction, and occasionally we wouldn’t find out we were wrong until we saw more road signs and realized we might be going the wrong way.  We actually tried, without success, to buy an actual map a few times – if we do this again, with better planning, a paper map would be a really good idea!

We had heard stories of corruption and crime in Albania, so our plan was to drive straight through and not get out of the car.  About ten minutes into the country, when we started driving the wrong way on a way street through what seemed like a one street town, we stopped to get help.  A hotel reception on Lake Ohrid gave us the only friendly assistance we experienced in Albania.  Otherwise, we encountered fisherman dangling fish for sale, farmers dangling cherries, tons of car washes with the water continuously arcing, beggars banging on our windows, and VIP motorcades pushing everyone out of their way while speeding on dangerous mountain roads.  It was little harrowing and we were happy to finally get out of Albania.

At the border crossings into Montenegro and Croatia, the agents were a little confused that we had driven through Albania.  In Montenegro we just had to explain ourselves.  In Croatia, however, we had to empty our car and display all of our drugs (don’t worry, just OTC stuff for allergies and headaches).  Then the customs agents inspected all of the VINs and seams on the car.  We weren’t sure if the extra scrutiny was due to the car being registered in Turkey, our drive through Albania, or a random measure.

Even though the drive was difficult, and the Albanians we did encounter weren’t exactly friendly, stretches of Albania were absolutely breath-taking.  From what we saw before it was too dark, the entire country of Montenegro is gorgeous, not to mention a little friendlier than Albania.  We stopped in a cute little lake town (I think Lake Skadar) for dinner.  Between Kim’s German and the waiter’s English, we were able to eat and share some stories with the staff.  An old man, somehow connected to the restaurant, kept dropping off random gifts at our table: a bag of tea and herbs, postage stamps, and mulberries (we think that’s what they were).

I’m way behind on updates since I got overwhelmed trying to finish up the academic year and end-of-year activities in Ankara.  In short, the first year of grad school is almost over (I have the last paper due and an email exam on Monday); my choir performed on another TV show (we’re like regulars now), my refugee center closed in order to focus aid at the border, Kim and I packed a lot of Turkish experiences into the few weeks before we left, and now we’re on the Balkan Loop of a summer full of road trips.

We’re in Croatia now – I’ll update more soon!

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