I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Twelve Vietnam, the Finale

A few days before departing Kathmandu A&P asked me what destination I had planned next. Somewhere in Southeast Asia, but I really was not sure. They were heading next to Vietnam and asked if I had no other plans, would I want to join them? I had worried that I had become a bit of a third wheel – but they liked me, they really liked me. I agreed.


Vietnam snake wine – not for the faint-hearted (and not for me either!)

I flew out of Kathmandu a few days before them so that I could secure my Vietnamese visa and flights from a Khao San Road travel shop. So I did not learn that P had visited an American clinic in Kathmandu and learned she was suffering from both dysentery and food poisoning – and I likely had had the same – until after we met up in Bangkok for our flight to Ho Chi Minh.

Welcome to Vietnam! My friends A&P and I hung back at bit at the airport a bit hesitant to throw ourselves into the throng of people waiting to whisk us off. One guy in particular was persuasive so we went with him. We get to his cab and it’s not a cab. It’s his private car. Oh well, his price sounds reasonable so we put our things in the trunk. He purposely leaves the trunk open as he strides to the front door. We don’t like that – what if we stop at an intersection and someone opens the trunk and makes off with our bags – so we shut the trunk. Oops – the driver just realized his key broke off in the trunk lock. He cannot open the car doors or the trunk; we cannot get our bags out of the trunk. The guy sends a friend on a mission – he returns with superglue to try to glue the key back together…and amazingly it works. We switch to a real taxi, the friend of the first guy. We ask him if it is the same price. He doesn’t answer. He switches on the meter. We ask him again. No answer. Alright. We arrive and the meter says 48,000 dong. We pay 48,000 dong and he is upset we do not pay double. Why use the meter then? And suddenly the guy speaks English. We grab our bags and walk away. We are already tired and we have only been in the country about an hour.


I try to get into the spirit of things at the Cu Chi tunnels

Our first full day is an adventure, but not for the lighthearted. We take a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong dug some 250 kilometers of underground tunnels. We watch an old movie about the brave Cu Chi people killing Americans and winning “American Killer Awards.” We get to walk (or rather stoop) our way through the tunnels and see some innovative torturous traps build by the Cu Chi people. The tunnels are only about 40 centimeters wide and 80 centimeters high, but also join to meeting rooms, kitchens, sleeping rooms and such, as well as consisting of three levels. It is an amazing display of what people can endure to fight for what they believe in. It is also very sobering. The weapons they fashioned from recycled American weapons were clever and terrifying. Then we arrive at a shooting range where tourists can shoot a couple of rounds of an AK-47 or an M-16 or some handguns for just $1 a bullet! I decline this amazing opportunity and put some tissue in my ears. On our way back we visit the War Crimes Museum, now renamed something like the War Remnants Museum.

We had wanted to leave the following day north to Nha Trang but the bus that day was full, so we instead took that day to rest. We had also heard that people get hassled on the beach in Nha Trang so we first headed to the quiet beach town of Mui Ne for two days to rest up. At Mui Ne we stayed in tents on the beach and it was indeed quiet. Just sand and surf and a few backpacker areas.


A statue at the Cham ruins, My Son. Yeah, that is the name of the temple complex, I’m not saying “my son.” Nope, I’m not.

Nha Trang was crowded. The touts were out in force. It was near impossible to relax on the beach without being pestered. I refused to take the much touted all-day backpacker boat trip. Given that I have very fair skin, do not eat sea food, a healthy fear of the ocean, and have a low tolerance for stupidity, I could not stand the thought of spending hours on a boat, likely burning to a crisp, with a bunch of boozed foreigners, swimming in the ocean and then being “treated” to a seafood lunch. Instead P and I both had traditional Vietnamese dresses made and we all visited the Cham ruins and the Ba Ho Waterfalls.

The waterfalls were cool – both the scenery and the water – but the problem of unwelcome requests, even demands, for money took away from the enjoyment.  A boy started carrying P’s bag at the waterfall. He just appeared out of nowhere and we surmised he was our guide included in the entrance fee. I started to wonder whether he was going to ask for money but seeing as hour our guild for the day tolerated him, I thought maybe it was okay. But when we arrived back at the entrance the boy demanded 10,000 dong from each of us, although he had carried only one of our bags. As usual it seems a good time cannot be had without the locals asking for some money, often for nothing to do with us. And everyone is in on it from little children to seniors.


At the Ba Ho waterfalls – and the amazing part is that I leaped in from the ground above. Sometimes I am rather badass.

I completely understand the desire for everyone to try to make some money, not only to make ends meet but to provide extra for their families. I tried very hard to keep this in perspective, but there are times when too much of it day after day can wear down even the most generous of travelers. In retrospect, I read these complaints in my diary and recall some of them with the trigger to memory, but for the most part I forgot these annoyances and remember mostly that I enjoyed Vietnam immensely.

A&P and I parted ways for a few days as they had a week longer in Vietnam than I did. I headed from Nha Trang to Danang of China Beach fame, then the lovely and quiet Hoi An with its unique Japanese covered bridge and on to historic Hue. There I took a tour on the Perfume River visiting three royal tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty, a temple, and Thien Mu pagoda.
Next I took an overnight bus from Hue to Hanoi. We departed at 7 pm and it was to take us some 14 hours to get to Hanoi, or so the brochure said. I wondered about our two drivers, it seemed only one was a driver and the other one had the job of keeping the driver awake as he seemed too young to have a license. That should have given me pause, and well it did, but not enough to get off the bus.

At some point in the night, around 4 am we were all jolted awake with some pretty loud thumbs and crashes, some screeching breaks, and finally our bus falling into a large ditch in the middle of the road. It would seem there was a road block of sorts set up for repairing the road, but the driver (and his assistant) were a little too tired and/or the road too dark to see the several “road closed” signs and we crashed through several barriers before landing in the two to three foot hole. We were lucky no one was seriously injured!


At a temple somewhere in Vietnam.

We all climbed out of the bus to survey the damage but it was pitch-black, middle of the night, and little could be seen. As luck would have it a small road side restaurant happened to be just across the street from our accident site – and even at that early hour was open. It was simple, coffee and tea, very basic bathroom facilities, and once 6 am came around they offered simple Vietnamese breakfasts that involved French bread, eggs, rice, and the like. During our forced rest stop, the driver, assistant, and some random locals worked to free the bus. It took several hours and it was probably 8 am before we were back on the road again. However, the driver must have been keen to make up time and he barreled down the roads, emboldened by daylight and coffee. I was exhausted but a little afraid to fall asleep. Just as I was doing so the driver plowed right into a dog on the road. There was no hesitation, no reduction in speed; he did not swerve at all. I just wanted off that bus.

Once in Hanoi I booked a three day, two night trip into Halong Bay. This was a fairly big deal for me as I knew I would be trapped on a boat with some party-types for some period of time but it seemed the best way to get out to the bay.

Yesterday before the five hour trek through Cat Ba National Park we stopped at a cave which had been transformed into a base of operations for the Viet Minh. The cave was built into a bunker with the help of the Chinese from 1960 to 1964. Inside the cave we had a local guide, a man who had served in the war. He sang us a military song and demonstrated how he took out enemy planes by shooting his arm up and down toward the ceiling while making blast noises. I realized though that he is a veteran of war just like any other veteran; he is probably pretty happy retelling his stories of valor and excitement to foreigners.

What I recall most of the Halong Bay adventure was the giant black and white mosquitoes I referred to as Zebras who buzzed and bit relentlessly during the hot and sweaty five hour hike. I also remember that the swim in the bay was nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated and I got in and swam despite my fear. I thankfully forgot how much travel time the whole thing took – at least a four hour drive from Hanoi to Halong City and then a four hour boat ride from Halong City to Cat Ba island.


Cruising in the beautiful Halong Bay

Back in Hanoi I reunited with A&P – we rendezvoused to visit the mausoleum of Ho Chin Minh and to see a show of the traditional Vietnamese art form of water puppets. We saw Uncle Ho and the Puppets and decided should we ever form a band that this would be an excellent name. It was kind of creepy to see Uncle Ho because he has been dead for 30 years, but it looks like he is just taking a nap. The puppets were enchanting and really unique.

We also visited the Ho Chi Minh museum, Quan Thanh temple, and the Temple of Literature.

And then it was time to depart; it was not only the end of my three weeks in Vietnam but it ended my eleven months of travel from Finland through the Baltics, then Eastern and Central Europe, the Balkans, to North Africa and finally to Asia. So many border crossings and currencies and cultures. Planes, trains, boats, buses, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cyclos, camels, horses and elephants, and lots of walking long distances on my own two feet. I was swindled and threatened; I was the subject of a lot of male harassment; I was attacked by dogs; I developed a lifelong intestinal condition; I had food poisoning. I also made friends, heard some incredible stories, saw amazing sunrises and sunsets, visited places of extraordinary history and/or beauty, fell in love, and pushed myself physically and mentally on a remarkable journey of a lifetime.

I did return to Bali for two more weeks to collect my things, do some final shopping, and make some promises I could not keep, then it came time to head to Monterey, California to begin graduate school and start the next chapter.


With my trusty backpack


I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Eleven Nepal

Nepal was so different. It was an enlightening breath of fresh air and exciting and just a tad crazy.


Kathmandu’s Durbar Square

My first days in Kathmandu were interesting to say the least. I stayed in Thamel, the tourist mecca section of town, in a simple guesthouse. I loved wandering the streets heading down to Durbar Square. I stopped at small flower markets at traffic circles (none of which were actual circles, more like traffic triangles where narrow roads come to meeting point), watched Nepalese Sadhus, waited outside the temple of the Living Goddess for her appearance, and just soaked it in. I visited the temple of Swayambhunath, taking in the prayer flags, monks, and prayer wheels, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Bhaktapur, with its astonishing temples and palaces (I took a rickety old bus missing several floor boards to the city; it was awesome).


Happy in the rickshaw before setting out, before the driver cursed me and my family.

In my first few days in the country the Maoists, who at the time were becoming quite a problem for the government, staged a strike in the capital. Most stores closed up, pulling down corrugated metal doors at their storefronts to prevent break-ins and looting. As I had heard most buses and cars were also to be off the road I hired a bicycle rickshaw driver to take me to Patan, another of the UNESCO World Heritage Site cities of the Kathmandu Valley. It was only 5 kilometers away and the rickshaw driver agreed – he had taken me to Swayambhunath the day before. The trip to Patan and back was fine. It was after he dropped me at a hostel in Thamel and it came time for payment that things went horribly wrong. I know we fixed price beforehand but upon returning he wanted more than we had agreed on. I said no. He refused to take the money. He spit on me. Cursed me. Cursed me and my family and our next generations. He wished me dead. Even though I was not actually staying at the Hotel Backpackers Inn, I hid in their lobby/lounge area as they had armed guards. From the parking lot entrance the rickshaw driver screamed obscenities at me for at least 20 minutes.

That sure was interesting.

I took a public bus to Chitwan, where I headed to the National Park. It was a pretty awful ride. It seemed to take forever although we took turns or precipitous cliffs with breakneck speed and had to stop for awhile as a large boulder the size of a rickshaw had rolled onto the middle of the road. It was exhilarating!

I had an awesome time at Chitwan!


A&P and I having a “bath” courtesy of this cute elephant.

Yesterday was very eventful. After breakfast we had a canoe ride for about an hour, followed by a three hour jungle walk. The guidebook had said these were not very safe. One of the hotel staff had informed us that just ten days before a Nepali tourist had been killed by a rhinoceros and that usually 1 to 2 people are killed annually. This was not comforting news. After getting out of the canoe the guide briefed us on evasive techniques were we to encounter any of the parks three dangerous animals: sloth bear, rhino, or tiger. [I still remember these techniques: if you see a bear, make noise. If you see a rhino, climb a tree or run in a zigzag. If you see a tiger, pray.]

We walked with two guides, one at the front and one at the rear, armed only with four-foot long sturdy sticks. The first animal we came across was a four foot long gharial crocodile sunning itself on a sandy area in the middle of a stream. Then we came upon many piles of rhino dung, some of it fresh. I wanted to see if I could climb a tree and found myself a rather poor climber…I saw myself likely being trampled by a rhino as a result.


I am sure this was totally safe, teetering atop elephants among rhinos.

Rhinos were spotted and so up into the trees [I had to have someone boost me up]. After ten minutes they trotted off and we climbed down and continued our walk. Only five minutes later we were running through the brush to see four rhinos together, just over 50 meters away (and few good climbing trees in sight.) It was very exciting. We saw no more rhinos but we did see monkeys and heard what might have been a bear quite close to us. After lunch we began a five hour jeep safari. On this trip we saw one bear, 12 rhinos, several crocodiles, wild pigs, wild chickens, deer, a monkey and a wild cat.

It was here I met British-Finnish couple A&P, with whom I would travel the next five weeks with. This morning a British couple and I went to the elephant breeding center by bicycle. Later we paid extra for an elephant bath. We also took an elephant safari ride together for a few hours. The elephant ride was a bit bruising and slow in parts, but we saw many rhinos up close and even saw two fighting.


Pokhara town center type of entertainment

We next headed to Pokhara, a lovely little town that serves as a base for trekking trips into the Annapurna Mountains. Here I met Tsering, a Tibetan refugee woman, in the center of town selling jewelry. I bought several pieces from her and got to talking. The following day A&P and I took a taxi out to the Tibetan refugee village several kilometers outside Pokhara to visit Tsering at home. She gave us a tour of the village and welcomed us into her home with many cups of yak milk tea (delicious!) and stories of her family. I stayed in touch with Tsering for many years, sending clothing for her five girls and exchanging letters and the occasional email.

A&P and I signed up for a four night, five day teahouse trek. From the first day in Nepal I had seen trekkers and I had wanted to do one but as a solo traveler did not see it as something realistic. But after meeting A&P they too revealed they wanted to do a trek but not just on their own. We joined forces and had an incredible, and at times tedious and exhausting and dangerous, time.


The views are totally worth the hike

Day One. April 14 2001. We left on our trek the first day of the Nepali New Year 2058. It seemed a nice way to start off the New Year. Our guide Ram and our porter Bhim, met us at our hotel with a taxi at 7 am. With five of us it was pretty crowded and the one hour drive to Naya Pl was not the most comfortable. But we were beginning our trek and we were excited. We walked from Naya Pul to Birethani for breakfast and the beginning of our trek. Ram told us the first day would be about six hours and pretty hard as it is all uphill. We did pretty well though making it to Ghandrung in four and a half hours even with rain for the last hour. I was absolutely thrilled with the first day because my legs held up and we made great time. I was all smiles. We played a few games of billiards at a local place, had dinner, and went to bed around 8:30 pm.


That’s me, the hiker of the Annapurnas

Day Two. We were up around 6 am to see the sun rise and the peaks were absolutely stunning. The walk that day was short (three hours) and pleasant, through a wooded area. But we arrived before noon, thankfully before the rain, and had almost nothing to do for hours. The stop, Tadapani, consisted of a few lodges and restaurants and Tibetans selling handicrafts. It was cold and both P and I bought Tibetan shawls [I still have mine!] It was a long day and I would have preferred a little more walking to have something to do.

Day Three. From Tadapani to Ghorapani was about a six hour walk and we did not shave any time off this day. It was a lot of up, up, up and we were tired. It was on this day that Ram the guide asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend. I told him sorry, but no. He had been peppering me with questions about a boyfriend and dating situations in the west from day one. Before we had started our trek he had helped me set my departure date with Thai Airways and he was trying to convince me to stay longer in Pokhara where he could show me around. I wish it had never happened.

We made it to Ghorapani, at around 2800 meters, with six hours of walking and one hour for a lunch break and rest. We made it just before the rain and hail started. Ghorapani is quite charming, with most buildings painted a bright blue with gorgeous vies of the Annapurna mountain range. It’s big drawl, and the reason we had chosen this trek, is its proximity to Poon Hill. At 3200 meters one can see at least fifteen peaks of the beautiful Annapurnas.


P and I atop Poon Hill with some hot cocoa and wearing every bit of clothing we had with us.

Day Four. We all woke up at a quarter to five in the morning to walk up Poon Hill in time for the sunrise. A was not able to make it up because of some scary drops [he is scared of heights] but P and I made it with Ram. It was a 40 minute climb up. We stayed at the top for about an hour, then the 40 minute climb down, breakfast, and then we set off for Tatopani.

Earlier in the trip Ram suggested that we might be interested in extending our trek one day to add in Tatopani where there are hot springs instead of heading down to Tirkedunga. He said it was an easier route and that it would be easier for A as it would be a lot less steep.

Ram was not much of a guide for the first part, usually going ahead of us or still trying to chat me up. If we got ahead of A&P and I wanted to stop and wait he would tell me they would just catch up. So when I walked more with them Ram seemed to lose interest in us all. This bothered us a bit but I was secretly happy for the time away from him. We made it to Sikha in three hours and stopped an hour for lunch. The trail then had been mostly easy, wide undulating roads. But about an hour later, just after Ghara, an archway opened into a steep cliff face. I was ahead of the others and just knew A would hate it. It was not at all what we had been promised.


On the bridge that would lead to Tatopani. I am sure this is totally safe.

I was happy to be away from Ram and could feel the excitement of being on my own. I could have waited but I thought it was not far from Tatopani and decided to make a go of it. There was a lone girl and her porter a little way ahead but I had soon overtaken them. I started to feel apprehensive about being on my own as I still could not see the others and in fact did not see any other trekkers. The wind was picking up and a storm coming so I decided to go on. I knew the bridge across the river was not far and Tatopani was to be 30 minutes beyond. I signed in at the police checkpoint and crossed the bridge. I began to worry I was not going the right way but I asked locals and they all pointed in the same direction. I arrived at Tatopani at 3:45 pm, seven hours after we had set off. I waited at the first café for the others who arrived about 50 minutes later.

Day Five. We were off to another late start this day. It was 8:45 am by the time we left and it was already raining. Ram told us that once we crossed the bridges and the police checkpoint, the walking was easy along wide roads and without drop offs. That was not true, and the rain only made the narrow, muddy trails (often only 2 feet wide) worse. A was terrified and P was angry. I too was tired. I did not like being lied to and wanted to distance myself as much as possible from Ram. He had told us it was a five to six hour walk to Galeswor and then another two to three to Beni. His plan was for us to stay in Galeswor another night and then on to Beni where we would catch a bus or cab to Pokhara.

After walking several hours [a hard, miserable slog through thick muddy trails] we asked Ram if it were possible to push on through to Beni and be back to Pokhara that night but Ram said it was impossible. It took us nine hours to reach Galeswor. We had resigned ourselves to another night so we just sat down, took off our shoes, and rested. However at dinner two Canadian women told us it was only another 30 minutes on to Beni. That night I was curled up in bed reading when there was a knock on the door. It was Ram and he wanted to sleep in my room. He said the guide room “smelled funny” but I said no. What a creep!


The pathway on our final long day. Just a small traffic jam. Notice the narrow ledge. I am sure this was totally safe too.

Day Six. After breakfast we made the walk to Beni in a 50 minute leisurely pace. We waited 30 minutes for a taxi and then had a rough three and a half hour journey back to Pokhara.

The trek was amazing. Absolutely. It was a challenge but the stunning views and backdrop were worth the temporary physical pain. But it was marred by the incompetence, lies and harassment on the part of the trek guide. After returning to Pokhara we learned the company was likely only registered to sell treks but not to actually lead them. Sitting in the office of another trek company, we noticed their comprehensive trek board that listed the names, passport numbers, and citizenship of their trekkers, the guide posted with them, the trek and approximate days. Our trek company had nothing of the sort. When we went to complain to the company they met us only with stares and recriminations. An hour or so after leaving the office we stepped in to another company to book our flights to Kathmandu and on a hunch I requested to re-confirm my flight on to Bangkok and learned that someone had called on my behalf had cancelled my flight. The only other person who had that flight information was the person who had helped me book it in the first place – the trek guide Ram!

Back in Kathmandu we took a one hour scenic flight including a view of Mt. Everest. On our next to last evening we all went to dinner together and the next day I woke up sick as a dog. I could barely move but I dragged myself up to A&P’s room to learn that P too was incredible ill. I spent my last day curled up in a fetus position on the narrow, thin mattress of my cheap guesthouse room.


The view from the scenic flight. One of these peaks might be Mt. Everest.

Even departing Nepal turned out to be an adventure as my inbound plane was temporarily diverted to Calcutta when Maoists set fire to the one and only runway. Thai Airways put all the passengers on the bus and took us to a nice buffet lunch while the fire was put out and we departed four hours late.

Whew.  Nepal was almost enough adventure for a lifetime.  Almost.

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Nine Indonesia

Bali is absolutely wonderful! I feel rejuvenated as I haven’t felt in some time…

I would like to write that I was full of bliss and excitement when I landed in Bali, Indonesia but instead I was tired and confused. My journal is not full of the observations of the sights and experiences of Bali but rather pages and pages of troubled personal scribbling. The upside though is reading through it I do not remember the angst but I do still remember, even so many years later, my days in Bali. Perhaps because this was my first trip there and the island and Indonesia would become such a large part of my life later on.


Sunset on Kuta Beach, Bali

I found a room at a cheap guesthouse on Jalan Karthika Plaza, not far from Kuta Beach. I was determined to relax and take my time in Bali and I proved it right away. Just minutes after checking in I walked into the guesthouse dining area, where each morning they would serve a lovely breakfast of watermelon and buttered toast or a banana jaffle, I found a pet fruit bat. I had never thought myself a fan of bats but then I had never before seen a fruit bat up close and it turns out they are really cute. This one was tame and enjoyed being fed fruit and resembled a tiny German shepherd with wings and clawed hands.

Before I could walk five minutes away from the guesthouse two enterprising young women accosted me and insisted I get a manicure and pedicure right there on the street. They had their own plastic stool for me to sit on and small array of nail polish colors. I consented and some thirty minutes later I had one of the worst painted nail jobs ever but by two of the friendliest girls; I felt only amused.

Not ten minutes later down the road I stopped to watch a performance of sorts with several men and women in traditional dress and clearly under some kind of trance dance in front of a temple located in the middle of a traffic circle. I stopped and watched for awhile as I had no particular schedule.

A few blocks away in a small shopping center very close to the beach I was able to turn away two women who wanted to braid my hair Bo Derek style. I had to draw the line somewhere and I knew I would probably not rock that look. Not long afterwards though it did not take too much convincing for me to agree to a massage on the beach.


Balinese dance is alive and enchanting

Initially, as in that first day when I was accepting of all things Bali and drinking it all in, the street side/beach side touts were amusing and dare I say refreshing. Yes I did want my nails done. Yes I did want to sign up for a tour. Yes I would like to eat in your restaurant. Yes I would like a massage. As the days wore on however this constant barrage of requests became really, really annoying. You could be quietly sleeping on the beach, face down or arm thrown over your eyes, listening to the sounds of the waves and conversation and laughter when someone would shake you out of your reverie and you would open your eyes to find someone who was offering to sell you a massage, or a sarong, or board shorts, or fake Baby-G watches. You could not walk down the street without someone trying to get your attention. The calls for “transport? Transport?” from men sitting on the curbs, their long black pants rolled up to their calves, shirts rolled up to expose their bellies, as they make a gesture like turning a steering wheel is what I remember as one of the biggest banes of Bali.

I signed up for tours. I visited Goa Gajah cave and temple with a stop to see a traditional Barong dance on the way. It was my first time to see the Barong and it launched a great interest in Balinese dance. I was joined on the tour by a German father and daughter, whom I am still in touch. I also went on the sunset tours to the beautiful Tanah Lot, a coastal temple that becomes inaccessible at high tide, and Uluwatu, which sits precariously on a high cliff in the far south and where as the sun set I watched my first Kecak dance. And completely unlike me, I joined three male backpackers from the guesthouse to dance my cares away at a local night club.


Because every funeral should have it’s own t-shirts.

A Perama shuttle bus took me from Kuta to the central Balinese town of Ubud. Still crowded with tourists it had a completely different vibe from the Spring Break party-like Kuta. It was rice paddies and artists, handicrafts and dance.

I loved Ubud. I stayed another five days just there. During the day I strolled the streets, visiting the Monkey Forest full of the cheeky aggressive fellows who will rob you blind of food and water or dining on some of the best backpacker fare in Southeast Asia. I attended a cremation ceremony after the motorcycle taxi guy who transported me from the Perama shuttle station to my guesthouse showed up one day and invited me. Why not? I had never been to a cremation. I visited the Tegalalang rice terraces, a waterfall, and the Gunung Kawi temple. And every single night I purchased a 25 rupiah ticket (about US$2.50) to watch traditional Balinese dances at the Ubud palace. I saw Barong and Kris dance again (it’s a crowd favorite), the Kecak dance (different venue from the cliffs of Uluwatu), the Legong dance, the frog dance (tari kelod), and the entrancing butterfly dance (tari kupu), my absolute favorite.

I am having a pretty good time here and am in no hurry to leave. Tonight I went to see my third performance of Balinese dance. They have all been great. I also attended a cremation ceremony today. A guy I met at the bus station showed up on my porch today and told me about it. I was immediately excited over the prospect of seeing a real ceremony, then though for a second…hey, this is a cremation, a funeral of someone I do not know.

But there were hundreds of people there; easily there were 50 men carrying the platform on which sat the Papier-mâché bull inside which lies the body of the deceased. The pallbearers turn this way and that and around as the body is transported from the home of the deceased to the cremation site so that the spirit will be unable to find its way home again. At the site vendors sold ice cream and other snacks.


Yogyakarta street signs offer life advice (a “gang” is a small side street in bahasa)

From Ubud I traveled to the coastal town of Sanur to catch a bus to Java.

I made it to Java! There was some doubt yesterday as to whether I might get here today. The day before I had been thrilled to get my bus ticket, it had been so easy, too easy. The bus was to pick me up at my Sanur hotel and drop me off in Malang – still a seven hour drive from Yogyakarta, but at least getting me off Bali and on to Java. It also had air-con and reclining seats. The cost was 85,000 rupiah. The pick-up time was to be 5:10 pm. Around 5:30 I was beginning to worry and called the office. They said there was some problem with the air conditioning and they would be along shortly. At 6 pm I called again and was told 30 minutes more. At 6:45 they said 15 minutes. At 7:10 they said the bus had to leave before 8 pm. I negotiated a 15% discount. At 8:45 pm I marched up to the office because phoning them seemed to do nothing to spur them to action. Around 9:10 me and my bags were ensconced aboard the bus and heading for Denpasar.

I thought we would pick up the five other people at the station, but we picked up each person at their homes, usually at the end of a one lane, unpaved road, so that I, in the back of the bus was tossed around like a beach ball. Supposedly this bus adventure included dinner to be served around 1 am when we first crossed into Java. We rolled off the ferry from Bali at 4 am. At 6 am we arrived somewhere and the driver told us to have our dinner, er, breakfast. We arrived in Malang at 10:30 am, though we were supposed to arrive around 5 am.

I stayed two days in Malang staying in the house of a sister of a woman I met randomly while in Sanur. I felt a bit weird about it at first but the family was extremely kind. On the evening of the second day I took a night bus to Yogya.


My first visit to the amazing Borubodur

Yogyakarta. I loved this place too. I had no idea at the time that I would return time and time again to Bali and to Yogya. As any good backpacker would do I visited the Sultan’s palace in the city and the 9th century Mahayana Buddhist Temple of Borobudur, the world’s largest such Buddhist monument, and the 10th century hindu temple of Prambanan, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Both are also breathtaking. One evening in a hot un-air-conditioned school room, sitting on hard folded wooden chairs with only two other tourists, I watched an old chain-smoking puppet master perform a traditional shadow puppet play. On another evening I watched a Javanese-style performance of the Ramayana ballet.

Then it was time to head back to Bali on a two day bus “tour” that stopped at the smoking volcano of Mt. Bromo along the way. What I remember most though was not the volcano or landscape but the hot and uncomfortably long ride in the bus, the too early wake-up call to head to the volcano that came after already being awakened by the call-to-prayer from a scratchy megaphone rigged to the mosque directly across from the hotel, and the unexpected morning chill before the sunrise.

Mt. Bromo was incredible but we had only four hours there and many, many more hours on the bus. The bus was supposed to be air-conditioned and it was not. The driver and his bus were filthy. I was wearing white Taekwondo pants and at the end of the trip they were grey. Gas was leaking into the bus which smelled bad and was surely dangerous. The man at the hotel was a jerk. I would like to have spent a whole day or two at the volcano instead of arriving at 8 pm and waking up at 3 am to see the sunrise and leaving again by 8 am. Mt Bromo is still an active volcano, which right now is showing quite a bit of activity – it was smoking and yet we still climbed right up to the crater and peered in.


A smoking Mt. Bromo

After again crossing the Bali Strait by ferry I could not stand the thought of staying in that filthy shuttle any longer than necessary. So, instead of continuing south to Kuta I disembarked at the first stop in Bali, Lovina Beach. And there I stayed and stayed. To be continued…

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Eight Egypt and India

I find arriving in a new country near dark disconcerting. Yet once again I was doing it, landing at Cairo’s airport as the sun was setting. Though I willed the plane to arrive early and the sun to put off setting, by the time I needed a taxi to lodging of some kind, it was already dark. So I was at the mercy of the taxi drivers. And then once at the hostel, I was at the mercy of the hard sell. They place had a nice rooftop restaurant and I wanted to enjoy my evening alone, quietly eating and catching up on a book or my journal. But that just could not happen. The man sidled up to me and began his pitch. I was still tired from the illness but also from just arriving.


Awesome. How else to describe it? Hard to believe I felt so sick on this day.

Sweet Talk Tour Guy swore to me up and down that “they,” the tour company, did a great job in matching travelers with other like-minded travelers for the best experience. I half-heartedly protested. I liked being alone traveling most of the time, so matching me up with another traveler was already going against my desires. Yet the guy would not take no for an answer and I soon found myself, against my better judgment, signed up for a tour.

The first day I had a solo tour to the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. To complement my tour I had the option of either a horseback or camelback ride through the pyramid landscape. As my innards were still recovering from illness I opted for what I considered the more comfortable saddle – the horse. I cannot say whether that was the correct choice or not, only that it still felt rather dreadful. I was happy to get down and have a walk around. Yet I made the mistake of entering one of the pyramids. It was small, cramped, and quite warm. Too, too warm. Stifling. I am not really a claustrophobe, but I did not enjoy the long, low, narrow passageway down. There were just too many people in there. And by that I mean I was not all by myself.

Back in the open air I opted not to visit the Great Pyramid. I knew at the time I might regret not visiting the largest of them, but I honestly could not stomach another voyage to the center of a pyramid. By the time I reached the Sphinx I felt I no longer cared and that is a pretty terrible way to approach one of the most iconic sites in the world. My pictures though present as someone who is quite pleased with herself, standing there with the Sphinx.

Next was on to the step pyramid of Djoser and then that evening a train to Aswan with my tour group.


The spice market where I found this cute guy and Twinkies.

An 11 hour overnight journey from Cairo to Aswan; all I wrote is I did not sleep so great.

The following day we had a tour in Aswan. It is amazing what we packed into a day. We visited the High Dam of Aswan, the Temple of Philae, and the Temple of Isis, the latter two which are located in the middle of the Nile and accessible only by boat. We had the evening to relax in the hotel on our own. I immediately set out to explore Aswan on my own, because mostly I craved time away from my tour group. I found a wonderful spice market and in a small shop located, this is almost unbelievable, Twinkies. Just two packs of them, probably smuggled in decades before. But I bought them and I ate them, relishing in each bite a forbidden taste from home. I had not had Twinkies in ages but they tasted like the most divine thing I had eaten in a long while. Perhaps that sounds like such a crazed overreaction, because it is, but despite being in this amazing location seeing relics of the antiquities, what sticks in my mind most about Aswan are 1. My disappointment in learning that there are no crocodiles in the Nile (though there are some in Lake Nasser, above Aswan Dam), 2. My fascination with the American staying in the hotel that lived and worked half of the year in Antarctica, and 3. The improbable two packages of Twinkies I found in the Aswan spice market.

I had to build up my sustenance as the next day we boarded a traditional Nile vessel, a felucca, for a two day ride down the Nile. Just me and my tour group, a captain, and a captain’s assistance. Approximately fourteen of us on a small boat for two days on the Nile.


Feluccas look pretty in the distance and are nice to ride on for maybe an hour or two.

It should have been romantic. It started out so, I wrote in my journal: And here on this boat on the Nile with the sun shining, the wind softly blowing, the conversation in Arabic between our boat captain and that of another boat, Bob Marley playing on a transistor radio, and the occasional calls of the wading birds, and I can think of possibilities and not of obstacles.

By the second day I already felt differently: So far the felucca ride is okay. During the day it is very relaxing and lazy drifting along the Nile. The sun is very warm. But there are a few problems; the first is there is no toilet. It means having to hold it until a suitable pit stop can be made, whence we stumble off the plank from the boat and up the river bank to squat in some reeds. The other problem is it seems everyone else on the boat seems to be a recreational pot smoker.

So much for matching me up with like-minded travelers! Whatever your views on marijuana use, in some countries it is most certainly illegal and result in stiff fines or much, much worse. In Egypt it is illegal. We were “pulled over” by the Nile police. I am not kidding. A Nile police boat put its lights on, forced us to stop, then boarded us and questioned us all. They focused on the Egyptian husband of one of the foreign tourists and the boat’s captain and first mate, and very little on the foreign tourists, but it was a tense ten minutes nonetheless.

I could not wait to get off that felucca after that.

We had stops at Kom-Ombo and the Edfu temple before finally arriving in Luxor. DSCF0631

Besides the pyramids, Luxor is the Egypt you see in the tourist brochures, the place little girls who like to read about early Egyptologists and mummies dream of visiting.

The visit to the West bank of Luxor – to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens and Karnak were incredible. But it was the Temple of Hatshepsut that really stood out. Not just because of its incredible location, but because just three years before a horrible terrorist attack had occurred there. At the time of the attack I was living in Japan. As ten Japanese were killed in the attack, it was heavily covered on the Japanese news.

The temple is a thing of amazing beauty. It is serene and imposing and fitting for one of the most successful and ruthless of rulers – the queen who crowned herself pharaoh. Walking down the long, exposed walkway from the entrance to the temple, with armed guards visible, I felt vulnerable and hyperaware. Of all the places I visited in Egypt I remember this site the most and it is there I want to revisit again the most.


The East Bank of Luxor in fading light.

The biggest annoyance with Egypt (besides my tour group) was the unwanted male attention. I met a Nubian man while wandering who invited me to his home on the West Bank for dinner. I was reluctant to go at first, but finally caved in. It was interesting to see his home, or rather his sister’s home, where he was living, but there was the usual underlying advances. He told me I should work in Egypt because it is a romantic country. He said he is going to open his own tour company and I could work there and I would be welcome to stay in his flat free whenever I was in Luxor. While I have felt the come-ons to be slightly more subtle in Egypt than in Tunisia, though probably because I have been more secluded by the tour, it is still tiresome…Several Egyptian men asked me questions about my sex life. I very much doubt they ask Egyptian women if they have had “relations” recently only an hour after meeting. I am surprised again and again how quickly the conversation comes around to either marriage or sexual proposals.

There was another overnight train returning to Cairo. It was horrible. The harsh fluorescent lighting that never went off. The toilet that became more and more disgusting as the trip went on. The too many bodies squeezed into a small car. With one more day in Cairo before flying out in the evening, I had planned to visit the Egyptian museum, but as I was too tired from the train and I only paid to sleep through the day in the guesthouse.


At the Red Fort in Delhi.

The next stop was India.

I stayed only one week. I was so tired from my travel and India is so taxing, so tiring. I was not in the right frame of mind to face it. Because of this I made the mistake of contacting an Indian man I had met in Bangkok months before just before starting my around the world trip. Well, it was a mistake and it wasn’t. Because I spent the majority of my time with him I had a very different experience in India than I would have had as a single woman traveler – and that is probably what I needed at the time. I have spent the majority of my time here with P. Because I am with him I am treated differently than when I am on my own. I have noticed that when I am with P persistent vendors give up quicker and rickshaw drivers and others are less likely to steer me to their shops or to places of their “friends” or places where they receive commission. The couple of times I have been out on my own these things invariably occur. My protestations are ignored. P has heard my stories of hassles from other countries but he tells me India is not so bad, but I would venture to say it is, only when he is not around.

The night before I went to the airport, after only a week in India, P asked me to marry him. I spent some time mulling it over – I wrote quite a lot about it in my journal. But the next day, on the way to the airport, I told him no.DSCF0646

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Seven Malta and Tunisia


At the gorgeous harbor of Valletta. P.S. Everyone should travel in Taekwondo pants – they are comfortable and super sexy.

From Sicily I took the ferry to Malta. It was dark as the passengers stood on a long slanted road at the port, waiting, luggage in hand, for the ferry to arrive and for us to board. I realized later that taking the four plus hour crossing in the day would probably have been a better option so as to 1. Not arrive in Malta so late in the evening and 2. Be unable to watch the incredible approach to the island and the port of Valletta. Lessons learned I suppose were I to do it again.

But I was eager to depart Italy and as the season grew later, further and further into the fall (it was already November) the ferry schedules were becoming fewer; I had to take what was available. I had expected to arrive at this juncture at least a month before, but there had just been too many wonderful places where I stayed longer and/or I added destinations.

The crossing was terrible. I felt incredibly sea sick through most of it. Though others were up and about mingling, I sat firmly in my chair, my backpack upright in the adjacent chair, my head on its top, my arms clutching it. If I moved my head at all I felt woozy and sick to my stomach. They played a movie on a screen in the center, Titanic, and I wondered what crazy, sick crewmember had thought that an appropriate movie for sea journey in the pitch black night. Yet I could not look away as that would require me to move my head; I was extremely grateful to arrive in Valletta.

I splurged on a room near the center of town so I would not have to share and could walk to many places. The sick feeling that had begun in Rome had persisted and grown worse and I needed more rest. I called the US Embassy doctor who kindly agreed to come to my hotel for an examination and consultation, thus redeeming the position in my eyes after the nurse in Skopje had so easily dismissed me and left me my possible fate by rabies. As I planned on only five total days in Malta he asked me my next destinations – Tunisia and Egypt – and suggested I meet with the doctor in Tunis as the country had inherited a French medical system and he gave me her contact information.


The beautiful Blue Grotto from above – I was a tad anti-boat after the Sicily-Malta crossing.

Malta was so interesting, drenched in sunshine and history, an improbable small country amongst powerful countries in the middle of the Mediterranean, but blessed with some high cliffs and a long, deep harbor that made its defense possible. Despite not feeling 100% I made an effort to see as much as I could of Malta with what energy I had. I attended the “Malta Experience” a one hour movie on the history of Malta followed by a self-guided tour of St. Elmo’s Fort and National War Museum. I took a boat tour of the harbor, which helped me to realize what I had missed out on arriving at night and went to see the Blue Grotto, though from above (still traumatized by the boat trip on arrival). I spent a wonderful hour or so at the Museum of Archaeology and half a day out at Mnajdra, one of the megalithic temples of Malta that are listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Simply strolling the streets of old Valletta was enjoyable. Although I did not know it at the time, Malta was an oasis between the aggressiveness of Southern Italy and Tunisia.

I took a flight to Tunis; I could not stomach the thought of another Mediterranean ferry crossing.

I found a decent $28 a night hotel right on the tree-lined pedestrian Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the heart of Tunis. I feel pretty safe here and I have my own bathroom and TV with lots of American shows in French, which I do not understand. The shower doesn’t work so well and the restaurant has no menu, but it would be a pain to change.

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I still have the necklace but my just-polished-the-furniture fresh scent is long gone

As my hotel was within walking distance of the beautiful Medina of Tunis, I visited several times, meandering through the labyrinth of stalls and cafes. As I still had potentially months more of travel, I kept my purchases small and simple. I bought a beautiful Tunisian necklace and small vial of citron perfume, the latter of which smelled like lemon Pledge (a U.S. furniture polish brand). I could only think that it must be incredibly sexy to smell as if one has just finished buffing the dining room table.


Sidi Bou Said

I did a day trip to the ruins at Carthage and the nearby village of Sidi Bou Said, many of its homes with beautifully decorative doors in multiple shades.

In light of the recent terrorist attack at the Bardo museum I have wracked my brain to confirm I had been there. It would have been very uncharacteristic of me to miss a museum of its caliber, but I have looked through my journal entries and there is no mention of a visit, I have no photos, no souvenir entrance ticket.

In Tunisia my energy really faltered. My illness took so much out of me. Not only was I sightseeing but I had an appointment with the Embassy doctor at her local practice and then later a procedure at a Tunis hospital. I also applied for my Indian visa in Tunisia. Now that I am a visa officer myself and watch applicants line up for at least an hour before their appointment, snake through security, then through the line for an interview, I marvel at my own experience. In Tunisia, I walked into the Indian Embassy, more a mansion, into a large hallway, where a woman came down a carved staircase to ask me if she could be of some assistance. I filled out my application, paid my fee (US$100), and returned a few days later to pick it up.

The worst part was the unrelenting harassment.


At the Coliseum at El Jem. Resting before walking the souvenir seller gauntlet to the tour bus.

Maybe I should intensively study French and Arabic and move to Tunisia – as I am obviously very attractive here. At least that is the nice explanation I have come to for all the unwanted attention I receive here. Everywhere I go in Tunis there are men following me. I am trying to ignore the hissing, clicking, kissy noises, whistling and whispering as I pass. I try to ignore the calls of “Hello,” “Bonjour,” “Your Name?” “Italian?” “Deutsch?” and so on and practicing the fine art of looking ahead and seeing no one, catching no one’s eye. I feel my jaw set hard and my fists clenched tight.

This happened absolutely every time I left my hotel. The avenue directly in front of the hotel was divided in the center by a long pedestrian walkway lined with old style street lamps and trees filled with song birds. It seemed perfect for strolling, if you are a man on the hunt. If you are a woman who just wants to go out for a walk alone, you will be out of luck. Notice I did not say a “single woman,” just “woman” because no matter if I said I had a boyfriend or I was married, if I was alone at that time, I was prey. Several men told me that if my boyfriend/husband really cared about me, he would not have left me alone, and that THEY would treat me right. <eye roll>


At the desert oasis for our overnight stop.

Given the health and stalking situations I decided to do something unusual—I signed up for a two day group tour, conducted in French and German. I spent awhile refreshing all the French and German words I knew, which together was perhaps a dozen. The tour visited the Roman Amphitheater at El Jem, the cave dwellings at Tataouine (made famous in Star Wars), Chott El Jerid, the giant salt lake shared by Tunisia and Algeria, and rode a camel in the desert oasis of Tozeur.

I also experienced a strange bout of homesickness: I could swear I saw a mirage out in the desert. From the tour bus window, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the reflection of a Taco Bell sign. I knew not to turn my head, I could not have suffered the disappointment. I sure wish there were a Taco Bell or a place to get some nachos or some great pizza or enchiladas, or just a place that had cheese that does not taste like tofu.


Camel riding with an intestinal illness is not recommended but I still managed a smile and an hour ride in this get-up.

Overall it was a good tour, generally free from male harassment, although my body often felt awful and I understood little. My tour guide spoke some English but for whatever reason she started each place off in German. “Blah, blah, blah,” [in German accent] for 5 minutes. Then, “blah, blah, blah,” [in French accent] also for 5 minutes. Then she would turn to me and say in English, “This is the X. You have X minutes to look around, then meet back at the bus.”

As I was leaving the coliseum in El Jem a salesman says to me “Scorpians? Marlboros?” I thought I must have heard him wrong, but I took a peek at his table and sure enough he had resin encased scorpions and packs of cigarettes for sale. I declined to purchase anything but I admired his ingenuity.

Then with my Indian visa, diagnosis and medication in hand, I am ready to leave Tunisia. Unfortunately with my open ended ticket, it takes three times to leave. Three times I check out of my hotel and head to the airport, and twice I return later in the afternoon having to check back in. My planned eight day visit turns into eleven, but third time is the charm and I am on my way to the next destination.

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Six Italy

After Greece I took a brief departure from the road; I flew back to the US for a week with family and to attend my high school reunion. That was a bit weird but I did win two prizes: 1) voted “most cultured” and 2) the person who traveled the furthest distance to participate.

After my brief trip back “home” I had a little trouble getting back into backpacker mode. I haven’t completed changed over to travel mode again. In my brief stay in the States, I think I became too accustomed to the idea of life there again. I watched a television mystery that was part 1 and 2 of a 3 part series, and I will never see the rest. I hardly remember what it was about and my life will go on fine without knowing, but it added to the disjointed feeling I have. At any rate I have found myself on the road again and I warm to it more every day.


I got this close to Pope John Paul II

Italy. It was a great way to start off the next phase of my journey.

I started in Rome, where the first thing I did was head down to the US Embassy with my absentee ballot to vote. I visited all the must-see sights: the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Boca di Veritas, the Vatican, and the Roman Forum. I was outside the Coliseum but unfortunately did not feel well enough to go in—this was the beginning of my health issues, though I did not know it at the time.


If you were wondering, I still have the hand. Bocca della Verità, Rome.

Despite the beauty of Rome, what I remember most vividly was meeting the American former Peace Corps volunteer at the hostel who had been forced to leave the Solomon Islands coup and while walking back from the Colisseum with Liz from the hostel, a gypsy child tried to run off with her bag.


San Marino, one of the smallest nations in the world. Beautiful.

I traveled with Liz to Pisa for the requisite photos by the Tower and then on to Florence, where we tired ourselves out walking the city to see the sights and searching for the best slice of Italian pizza. I found it enjoyable to travel with someone a few days, the first since my escape from Romania. Yet after five days, it was time to strike out on my own as I headed north to Bologna, where the weather kept it a short visit, and then on to Rimini.

Rimini was my stepping stone for a visit to the Republic of San Marino, one of the smallest countries in the world. Despite its size, I remember the day was bright and warm and walking along the steep and winding cobblestone streets. No tour. Just a public bus from Rimini to San Marino and then back, with three hours to soak in the history and pick up my requisite passport stamp, postage stamp, and coins.

Then on to Venice. I stayed here for only two days. Italy was expensive and Venice was one of the most expensive places in Italy. Twenty dollars an hour at the Internet cafes was plenty reason to never log on. The weather did not favor me here. Mostly it was overcast though it rained once, hard for some time, and I had the opportunity to stroll through a St. Mark’s square filled with water. The city was beautiful with its iconic bridges, narrow streets, and of course canals. Besides the pervasive underlying smell of the water and a wonderful Italian pizza dinner at an outdoor café by the water, my strongest memories are visiting a glass blowers shop on one of the smaller islands and my hostel. I stayed at a women’s lodging on the island of Guidecca run by nuns. This hostel was reached only by water taxi, not too many places where one can say that. My bed was one of 50 in a single room. They served a simple breakfast and the curfew was strict, 10:30 pm. At that time an old nun, dressed in traditional garb, would enter the room and say in English, “Good night girls” and turned off the light.


Venice was beautiful and pricey. Worth it!

From Venice I headed to Milan with a stop in Verona to visit the old castle, the cathedral, and of course Juliet’s house. Milan was just a stopover itself before heading to Genoa and then to Monterosso in the Cinque Terre. It was here, walking through one of the villages, when one of my most improbably travel meetings occurred. While walking to the train station I passed a woman I could have sworn was GM, who had stayed in the same room as I in the hostel in Skopje, Macedonia. I called out her name and sure it enough It was her! So we spent the day together and had a great time. We wanted to walk along the Via della Amore that linked the last two towns, but it was blocked with a high spiked fence due to recent landslides (there had been a locked gate and a fence on an earlier walk but we had easily circumvented them. We squeezed through the gate and swung ourselves over a cliff face to get around). We had a lot of time to talk while waiting for the train between the towns. Given the towns were small it seemed not many trains stopped there; three zoomed past without stopping. It grew dark and the next train scheduled to stop was in four hours. Luckily a random train stopped and picked the few of us stragglers up and we made it back to Monterosso.


I did not go in I swear.

Then it was time to go south, way south to Naples. I caught the train to La Spezia and then to Naples seven hours later.

The weather in Naples that early November was perfect. The views of Vesuvius were amazing. The trip to Pompeii was somber and engrossing. The historical sites were wonderful. The pizza was delicious. But I did not like Naples. First, there was a trash pick-up strike and mounds of garbage bags were piled up in several locations. Second, the harassment. Whenever I left my hostel I was exposed to the catcalls, the whistles, the stares, and being followed by men. I felt hunted and stalked. The first day when I had been traveling with a fellow male traveler I had been left alone, but once he had departed and I made my way around on my own, the harassment began.


Pompeii. Amongst the ruins of the dead, I mostly found the peace I needed from the harassing streets of Naples.

I remember even walking along the road near the waterfront in the direction of the train station and my hostel, a car slowing down alongside me. I do not remember if the driver spoke to me or not but I recall the feeling of dread, particularly after the car drove off and then I watched it make a u-turn, speed down the adjacent street, and then turn to return to drive alongside me. I began to hate Naples and was happy to leave for Sicily.

Next stop Syracuse. It may have been the most classical and beautiful city I visited in all of Italy. The wide clean streets of the historic area were a pleasure to stroll along and such a relief after the gritty and illicit feel of Naples. I wished though I had visited Sicily earlier in the trip because by that time I had become fatigued by Italy. I was tired of the prices and, believe it or not, tired of the pizza. But most of all tired of being harassed. I traveled out to a Greek amphitheater where I sat at the top of the stone seating and reveled in the historic beauty and in being on my own. I saw two young Capuchin monks at the train station, sitting together on a bench, the hoods of their brown robes shielding their faces. I rather wished I had such a robe. I then headed to Catania where I had a day of sightseeing before heading on to my next destination. I love history and culture and Italy is beyond rich in these. Italy is beautiful, but it also took its toll on me and I was glad to move on.

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Five Macedonia to Albania

Things became only more interesting in Macedonia.

After checking into the hostel in Skopje I contacted the US Embassy nurse. Although the doctor in Sofia had said the likelihood of rabies was very small, he still suggested I receive the shots. I contacted the nurse on her cell phone and it was costing me a lot of money so I asked if I could call her back on a regular line. She told me to call her back in 10 minutes as she was walking back to her office and she would think what to do. I called back every 10 minutes for the next hour and could not get through. I left two messages, one with the telephone number of the hotel. I stayed there two nights and she never called. The worst part was when I did first talk to her she asked me when I had been bitten and she told me “well, then it is too late.” And even then she never called me back. My first experience with a US Embassy nurse was not a good one.


Skopje. Dry, horses (!), and ugly modern architecture.

Skopje was warm and dry. The Vadar River though was pretty full and gave the city it’s only real color. The dry grass along its banks, the ecru stone and red tile roofs of traditional areas, and the unfortunate modern structures all rather blended together. There were horses drinking from the river which seemed about as crazy a thing to see in a capital city of Europe; they might as well have been giraffes! What I remember most about Skopje were the rude whistles from men as I toured the old town, the games of chance – high stakes ball under shells – played on the Stone Bridge, and meeting GM from Australia. She arrived to share my room in the hostel as I awaiting the call that would never come from the Embassy nurse. We hit it off right away and chatted for hours until dinner, and then walked together to the new town for some alfresco dining, continuing to talk. She only stayed the one night, heading off to her next destination the following morning, but when she left it was as if we had known one another for a much longer time.


Beautiful Ohrid. Byzantine churches set on a gorgeous lake.

Next I headed to Ohrid, a town on the banks of the lake of the same name. Both the city and the lake are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the lake for its importance as a Biosphere Reserve and the city for its incredible cultural and architectural sites; it is the site of one of the oldest human settlements in Europe and the location of some pretty spectacular Byzantine churches. It was beautiful. The narrow, winding stone streets of the old town were spectacular. Yet I remember most seeing the US and NATO troops on leave from Kosovo.

I had originally planned to cross into Albania from Ohrid, but the closest I came was taking a bus to the Sveti Naum monastery and from there the return bus to Ohrid drove up to the Albanian border and then turned around. I had been trying to follow the news along the way and it seemed that the government was not functioning too well, so I decided to give it a miss and head south to Greece.

Happy Birthday to me. I am now in the Greek town of Florina after crossing the border from Macedonia. I took a bus from Ohrid to Bitola and from there a taxi to the border, then caught a taxi on the other side to Florina. I had intended to take a bus on to Kalambaka today. But I learned at 1 pm at the bus station there are only two buses a day at 8:30 am and 8:30 pm and the later bus would get me in at 12:30. So here I am celebrating my birthday in a hotel room in rainy border town Florina.

I missed the morning bus the next day too when I showed up at 8:15 am to discover that the bus had already departed. Another time change although I had traveled due south – an example of some political disagreements between countries even affecting the time! I was not impressed with Florina: my first impressions of Greece are not improving. The men all seem on the dirty side. They smoke, stare hard at women, and there are those gems with gold chains resting in the mound of chest hair visible because their shirts are unbuttoned so low. Loud arguments erupt everywhere for no apparent reason.


Meteorea. Breathtaking if the clouds clear. And yes, there was a Bond move set here.

I skipped waiting again for a direct bus from Florina and opted to instead take the terribly draining four bus route to get to the town of Kastraki. The rain had let up; although it was still cloudy I could see the amazing rock formations that give Meteora its name. However, when I awoke this morning, it was raining once again. Therefore I decided to take the 3:20 bus to Ioannina, but spent the early part of the day going to see at least the biggest monastery. Even though standing across the chasm that separated the parking area from the monastery rock, I could barely make out anything. The fog certainly made things interesting, because standing on the edge of the cliff I could not see anything of what was below. Luckily the rain had stopped and for fifteen minutes the fog around the monastery disappeared and lo and behold there were two more monasteries perched atop their own needle-like rocks. I also lucked out in finding a Belgian couple with a car willing to give me a lift. They took me with them to a nunnery on another rock, and even on to Kalambaka, stopping to get my pack in Kastraki.

I had a brief overnight stop in Ioannina, where it continued to rain. Then I headed on to the island of Corfu. The island was beautiful but my visit was marred by the arrival of a large US Navy vessel that let loose hundreds of 20 something men on the unsuspecting town. I know they are young but that does not excuse their behavior. My first night here I had dinner out and I had sit next to a table of these men. They talked loudly about being laid and how big their d*cks are. They harassed the waitress. And when a small group of protestors arrived with a sign saying “Yankees Go Home,” the men went crazy yelling that Greece “would not even be a country without us.” On another day at a restaurant a table of them loudly rated the physical attributes of every single woman that passed by. I know I was not in a good place to hear and see these kinds of things. I had written in my journal just the day before about a Greek man harassing myself and three other women at a bus stop. I know that not every single one of those sailors was like that. Actually while sightseeing at the Old Fortress in town I fell in with five of them touring the castle and they were thrilled to hear I was from Virginia. At an Internet café I saw one of the officers of the ship. I screwed up the courage to talk with him and to tell him of my disappointment in the behavior I had seen and how it made me feel bad as a woman and an American. He very respectfully listened and thanked me for telling him.


One of the lovely highlights of Corfu – there were nice things besides harassment.

Then came one of the craziest days of my trip.

I decided to take a cruise to Albania as a belated birthday gift to myself, to make up for Florina. On Monday I was at the port customs and immigration office at 8:30 as the boat was scheduled to depart at 9. At 10 minutest to 9 there is no sign of the boat, or any other passengers. “Don’t worry,” said an immigration official, “your boat leaves at half past 9.” At 9:15 no boat and no other passengers. I run around the corner to the ferry office to ask “where is the boat?” I was told the excursion was cancelled due to bad weather (and I was the only one they could not reach as I was staying in a cheap-o sailor hostel by the waterfront).

I return to the port to tell the officer the trip has been cancelled and to collect my passport. “You want to go to Albania?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. “Well, that boat over there is going to Albania.” “When,” I ask. “Now,” he replies. I ran back to the ferry office to get my tour refund, return to the port, my passport is stamped, and I leap onto the departing boat as the gangplank is pulled up. It is only once on board that I wonder – where in Albania is this boat going?

I confirm the boat is heading to the same destination as the tour and the other questions of “what am I doing?” and “what will I do when I get there?” fade away.

An hour and a half later we arrive in Saranda, Albania. This is when my problems began. Albania requires no visa but charges Americans a US$45 “border tax.” I was only going to be in Albania for 3 ½ hours, yet the immigration police insisted I pay this fee. I did not have that much money on me. The police were not quite sure what to do with me. A woman waved a paper in English with a bunch of crazy, arbitrary rates, but I caught something at the bottom about daily tourists. I was then taken to the police office and given an interpreter.


My good-natured police guards – while detained on the boat. I told them to look mean while I would look scared. They just found it all too funny.

I looked at the rate paper again. It said “daily individual tourists can be admitted with a visa-free entrance fee of US$10.” This was translated to the police commander by two tour agents serving as my interpreters but the Comandante refused to believe either of them. The Comandante took me back to the boat and placed me under guard while he held on to my passport – I guess in case I tried to run away. A friendly English speaking taxi driver translated my story of woe for my two police guards and they agreed to take a picture with me.

Then the captain of the boat invited me over to the port café for a drink. The Comandante was a little upset to walk by and find my off the boat and enjoying a drink with several boat workers, but he had my passport and the men called out cheerfully to him, so he seemed to accept my expanded definition of imprisonment. I was told he was working hard to find a solution to my problem.

A few minutes later the Comandante came riding back with the friendly taxi driver and told me to get in the car. I was driven to the local police station where the police captain got out of the car and informed me the driver would take me wherever I wanted to go, while he held on to my passport. So I asked the driver to take me to Butrint, the UNESCO World Heritage Site roman ruins that had been on my original tour. I paid for this privilege for 7000 drachmas, which wile not a bargain was pretty good given I was not technically in the country. I also had to pay the Comandante a “helping fee.” But I did not pay the US$10.

After our trip he returned me to the port where the Comandante returned my passport and I was escorted to the boat back to Greece, my fan club waiving me a cheery goodbye.

So it worked out. I got into Albania. The taxi driver made money. The commander made a little money. I even got two stamps saying I went to Albania, although I guess not quite legally.


I could never have imagined the adventure to get here – Butrint, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Albania