Moldovan wine and Ukrainian ice

Since October 10th 2013: 138 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
 
 
What does it take?
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There is no way that anyone in the history of mankind will ever see and understand every country in the world. At least I won't.
 
I'm trying to reach every country in the world without flying or going back home. To complicate it further I need to spend a minimum of 24 hours in each country. These rules make it tremendously complicated and nearly impossible. Sometimes politics interferes and I cannot cross a border or receive a visa. Sometimes geography interferes and I cannot cross an ocean or reach an island. Mostly the struggle of the Saga is just mental though: don't go home! Keep on keeping on!! I've referenced this math before but there's no harm in reminding you:
 
203 countries to visit
- A week in each would amount to 4 years away from home.
- A month in each would amount to 16 years away from home.
 
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I'm currently at an average of 10.4 days/country (1,444 days away from home and 139 countries visited). That would mean I could complete the remaining 64 countries in 665 days. I really do want to go home though and I also want to reach the remaining 64 countries. Besides there's no giving up within the Saga! So a tactic is to spend less time in each country in order to return home faster. As such I was spending 3 days/country going through the first 8 European countries after leaving Africa. That was to rough on me with everything I wanted to do so I increased the country average to 4 days. It's something I can do in Europe as transport availability is plentiful, most countries are relatively small, there are no visa requirements for a Danish citizen and hardly and time consuming checkpoints. In other words the logistics for transportation have been very easy lately. This is bound to stop soon however it will continue for a few more countries: Bulgaria and Turkey. Cyprus is the last European country after that in order to complete the continent. Cyprus is however an island nation with poor diplomatic relations to Turkey so it's not advisable to commute directly between the two countries.
 
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These nice eyes belong to some of the nicest people! :)
 
Politics?! "If you arrive to our country from their country then we won't like you very much". Keep in mind that we are dealing with adults here who are making official politics on behalf of millions. No humans = no countries. Nature has it all worked out. Why can't we follow suit? Or at least get along? Do you remember that I went to Greece and afterwards to Macedonia? Well, the Greeks (not all I suspect) find it offensive that Macedonia calls itself by that name. You see, there's a region in Greece called Macedonia and therefor some Greeks see it as an infringement on their territory. I only bring this up because I recently traveled across beautiful Romania. I was on my way to Moldova which was to become country no 138.
 
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And these eyes likewise belong to nice people. Because people are just people ;)
 
Guess what? In order to reach Moldova from Bucharest I had to cross the Romanian region of Moldavia. Moldavia is actually called Moldova in Romanian. So naturally the Romanians are wildly upset with their neighbor using the same name as their region - right? No of course they aren't. Because here you'll find some sense among countries and world leaders. There's Moldova and there's Moldova. One is a country and the other is a region. Pretty easy. Grow up Greece ;)
 
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2 minutes late and the train decides to leave on time!!
 
I was looking forward to taking the train from Romania to Moldova. Apparently the train stops at the border because of different gauges (the width of the track) between Romania and Moldova. I enjoy traveling by train but this time I missed it by 2 minutes. I could see the back of the train leaving once I arrived. It was a combination between traffic, wanting to finish the blog and poor timing on my part which lead to the delay. Fortunately I had some good friends I Romania who helped me find a bus leaving that night. Ironically the bus was both faster and cheaper and early next morning I reached Chisinau - the capital of Moldova.
 
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Definitely worth the shave!! ;)
 
I was in a hurry to reach Moldova as I had a planned rendezvous with my talented and beautiful fiancée who was all set to visit me for the 14th time since I left home. It was just a brief visit but nonetheless a visit and sorely needed. Visiting every country without flying feels like a big risk at times. There is much which I wish to accomplish and I often wonder if it is being noticed or valued on a scale which truly matters. The global unification of the Red Cross Red Crescent, the positive promotion of each country, the relentless 'keep on keeping on' attitude, the social media, the blogs, the interviews... There are cats that have a larger online presence than the Saga. For those reasons and many more it was very good to look my fiancée deep into her brown eyes and feel her arms around me, once she arrived to this less known country. Moldova really is unknown isn't it? If you had to name the capital city in a game of trivial pursuit then you probably couldn't? And I've already mentioned it once. If you want to attached 2 words to Moldova then let them be "wine" and "nature". Moldovan wine is famous and sold by the millions! Until recently it was largely only sold to Russia but there was a political fallout between the countries and sales dropped. The quality of the wine competes with french wine and won a second place (in France to the French).
 
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Moldova has the lowest GDP per capita for any European country which is nothing to be proud about but some country needs to have it. For its visitors that makes Moldova highly cost effective as your budget will get you really far. Chisinau (the capital) has a blend of outdated infrastructure and modern structures sitting in the midst of nature. Some say that Chisinau is the greenest capital in Europe and I certainly understand why. Park life is important and prioritized. The people appeared distant to me. I found it really difficult to strike up a conversation or provoke a smile. I cannot remember anyone engaging with me anywhere?  No one would ask "where are you from" or "what's your name". I didn't observe a frequent use of worlds like "thank you" or "please". Neither to me nor between people in society. However after a few days I discovered that beneath a layer of "ice" the Moldovans were nice, friendly and hospitable. It was the beginning of a new culture for the Saga. The language barrier didn't help much either. Cyrillic script has been dominant for a while now but usually combined with Latin script. At times I can decode the Cyrillic scrip but often I cannot. And then it's kind of funny that we still watch the same movies, fidget spinners are still fashion, Game of Thrones is the talk of the people along with President Donald Trump and tattoos and tight pants are the thing with the youth. Some things change and others do not. 
 
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The Chinese team had people flying!
 
Imagine our surprise when we stumbled upon the World Championship for the Bodyguard 2017 competition!! Some 15-20 countries were competing in disciplines such as: extreme driving, combat skills, VIP escort under attack etc. It was quite a large setup and it looked very impressive. It was right in front of the Government House and the roads had been blocked off. However it was very hot under the blue sky and it only drew crowds of around 2-300 people. It could easily have supported 10 times as many. Fun and unexpected twist to visiting Chisinau - I never knew there was such a thing.
 
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Orheiul Vechi - a beautiful piece of land in Moldova.

One day we went a little sightseeing to a place called Orheiul Vechi which is an Eastern Orthodox monastery complex carved into a massive limestone cliff. It overlooks the Raut River and is one of the most visited places in Moldova. Nearly all of the visitors are Orthodox pilgrims who come from all over, not just Moldova, to pay their respects and visit the complex’s cave church. It's quite the location and the nature itself is worth the relatively short bus ride from Chisinau.

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Personally I will always remember Moldova for being a wine country! On our last day together my fiancée and I ventured out to see something very special! Cricova' is a Moldovan winery, located in the town with the same name, 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) north of Chisinau (Moldovas capital). The famous wine cellars make it a popular attraction for tourists and it was ideal for us to join a guided tour which comes at low cost but offers a very high quality.

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We were in the footsteps of Angela Merkel, John Kerry, Vladimir Putin and my personal favorite: cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin!!! (the first human to journey into outer space). The winery boasts more than 120 kilometers (75 mi) of labyrinthine roadways deep underground where the cool temperature and moist stays constant all year round.

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Angela Merkels wine is perfectly aligned and untouched ;)

Some of the tunnels have existed under Cricova since the 15th century, when limestone was dug out to help build Chisinau. It wasn't until the 1950s that it was converted into this very successful wine emporium. I highly recommend this experience if you ever head this way.

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I don't know what I think about Moldova? It's definitely a nice little country and I would be happy to have the chance to return some day. The summers are warm and long, with temperatures averaging about 20 °C (68 °F) and the winters are relatively mild and dry, with January temperatures averaging −4 °C (25 °F). So that all sounds pretty good. The region known as Transnistria causes some political problems as it declared independence from Moldova in 1990, precipitating the War of Transnistria which secured a de facto independence for the territory. However, the region, which has its own currency and border controls, is not officially recognised by any member of the United Nations. I'm sure people who live there think they are an independent country - but I have a hard time seeing it as that. What Moldova really deserves is a motorcycle journey. Perhaps a month or two in the region riding around the mountains, rivers and villages of the Balkan and Eastern Europe. Stopping whenever and wherever you please. Having local meals and brewing a cup of tea on open fire. How splendid would that be?! No motorcycle for me right now though.

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Another bus took me from Chisinau in Moldova and the relatively short journey to Odessa in Ukraine: country number 139 without a single flight.

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Time to let the beard grow back again ;)

Odessa is a historical port city on the coast of the Black Sea. Reaching Odessa brought the Saga up to 183,878 km (114,276 mi) over land and sea since October 10th 2013. We will soon reach the halfway marker to the moon! Kiev is Ukraines capital city and I dearly want to go!! But it's a 7 hour train ride from Odessa and in the wrong direction. Odessa is spectacular though! 

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In the beginning of this entry I wrote that there is no way that anyone in the history of mankind will ever see and understand every country in the world. This statement refers specifically to Ukraine right now. Ukraine is extraordinary!!! It's also fairly large and the largest country contained entirely within Europe. I could spend several months just exploring Ukraine's wide open ranges, the coast of the Black Sea, the mountains, the ancient cities, the variety of cuisine which changes as you cover more distance... Ukraine was once known as the breadbasket of Europe and the countries rich soil can feed hundreds of millions of people. Ukraine itself "only" has around 43 million mouths to feed. Neanderthal settlements document that modern Ukraine was inhabited already 45,000 years ago. It's quite possible that these lands were where horses were first domesticated. Since then a number of kingdoms, empires and civilizations have influenced the region. Today Ukraine boasts 7 World Heritage Sites as well as a claim of being the center of Europe! That claim however depends on how you make your measurements of the European borders. By one method the small town Rakhiv in western Ukraine lays claim to this hypothetical center.

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So what can be said about the people? Well what do I know? I've only been to Odessa. However based on my encounters I'd say that there is still a layer of "ice" between people and me which I must first break in order to have a real experience. That layer is however no where as thick as in Moldova. Another observation has been that I'm hopelessly out of fashion!! I was even turned away at a cafe in downtown Odessa for not living up to the dress code. That's a first (but I see what they mean). The women here are internationally known to be beautiful and that is no exaggeration. They definitely are. In my opinion a woman becomes more beautiful when she doesn't know that she is. A lot of the women in Odessa definitely know that they look like underwear models. It's a sailors town and you feel that. There are decorations, pieces of art, statues and more depicting anchors and mermaids all over the place. There are plenty of "gentlemen clubs" and lots of advertisement for them. There are a great deal of restaurants, cafes, clubs, clothing stores, museums, parks and what have you. Generally Odessa is alive!

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This isn't a Christmas celebration. This is just Odessa on a Thursday ;)

Ukaine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and is trying to distance itself from the Russian influence. In Odessa Russian is however the common language but there are those who wish for Ukraine to be referred to as Ukraine and not "the Ukraine" as were it a region of another entity. Some argue that Kiev should be spelled Kyev as in Ukrainian as well as Odessa should be spelled Odesa. So from now on o will. It may be seen as small steps but I think it is important to those who pride themselves in their independence. I come from Denmark and pretty much take my countries independence for granted. Denmark is one of the worlds oldest countries and was consolidated some 1,300 years ago and unified as a kingdom in the 10th century. So no, I don't know how much it means to have an independence day although I have an idea about it having seen a lot of countries and met a lot of people already. What I do know is that I support sovereignty. I feel the frustration of the Ukrainians who saw their sovereign territory in the east be annexed by Russia just a few years ago. Especially after holding a signed document, which reads that Russia will protect over the sovereignty of Ukraine. Ukraine held the 3rd largest nuclear arsenal in the world after its independence in 1991. In 1994 Ukraine agreed to destroy the weapons, and to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Ukraine did this because on December 5, 1994 the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Britain and the United States signed a memorandum to provide Ukraine with security assurances in connection with its accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. No wonder the Ukrainians, who are largely seen as peaceful people, were caught by surprise...

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Ukraine has seen both battle, war and armed conflict in its history. However Ukraine has largely only picked up weapons in order to defend its own borders. In fact I'd argue that Ukrainians are in general very passive, friendly and helpful. I can't argue that out of my own experience but this is what I have been told several times. People from Ukraine will go very far in accommodating you and making sure that you get what you need or what you want. In my experience that sound right when we talk about people in general. Across the 4 continents the Saga has already brought us too people have just been people. In fact in my experience someone in the position to help a stranger often will help a stranger just because they can. I'll give you a small example: the other day I needed help to take a photo and I tried asking the first person walking by. It was a young skinny fellow looking into his smartphone and listening to music. He didn't stop and walked right past me. However a man saw this and walked a great distance just to come and ask me: "can I help you?" That's people for you. All around the world.

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Borsch is a beetroot soup which originates from Ukraine.

Odesa is truly a pearl! Especially the old town which is utterly charming. Summers are hot while I understand that winters will rarely fall below −3 °C (27 °F). However it's possible to go skiing in Ukraine and I hear it's pretty good. So perhaps my next visit should be during the winter?

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20 out of 49 talks at businesses, schools and universities have been at Maersk: www.maersk.com

If my only goal was to reach every country without flying then I'd be home by now. The Red Cross Red Crescent remains a strange entity for the Saga where I recently chose to restructure my involvement and stopped writing stories for each National Society. I simply couldn't see a connection between my efforts and the output and largely didn't feel that it was making a difference. Instead I now invite the National Society of each individual country to take advantage of my visit in any way they please. It can range from a handshake and a cup of tea to a full day program of meetings, activities, interactions and interviews. Each country has its own capacities and I find it to be a much better promotion of the worlds largest humanitarian organization. I'm a goodwill ambassador of the Danish Red Cross, which has initiated my involvement to begin with. It takes up on average 2 days for each country which means more than a year of this project.

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I wish I would be with a train or ship to Bulgaria. But I'll be with another bus...

The positive promotion of every country in the world is likewise time consuming. How do I quickly convey valuable and fair information about a country I've never been to before? Well I do a bunch of research and I speak to a lot of people. Furthermore one could argue that I can assess a lot faster now that I can compare with so many other countries. Much in the same way as someone who is buying a secondhand car for the 5th time will have a greater understanding of what to look for that a person doing it for the first or second time.

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As you can clearly see these are the 7 fundamental principles listed in Cyrillic ;)

The Red Cross does not pay anything towards this project which I think is a good thing. Knowing the media to some degree I can lively imagine some journalist spinning a story about how your donations to the Red Cross are going to a pleasure cruise all around the world. For the public this project is like the top 10% of an iceberg: the sun is shining, I meet a lot of people, I travel for a living, I eat exotic food, I don't need to take care of children or a desk job... The 90% that the public does not see involves: loneliness, being misunderstood, keeping socialmedia alive and updated, bookings, meetings, getting into the 267th time (tomorrow), missing home, loosing sight of the importance of continuing, taking most decisions alone, coordinating meetings with the Red Cross, language barriers, repetition, dealing with a small budget, raising funds, leaving when you don't want to, being scared, stress, visiting unsafe regions, saying goodbye every week, uncertainty and a lot of other things. However do not despair! There is a lot of good stuff in those 90% too: knowledge, experience, character, rewards and so on.

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My final word will be on the crowdfunding campaign. Can you believe that it is not up and running already? As sad as the truth is this project lost its financial sponsorship at a time when I could barely handle any more headwind. I was in Central Africa and had bitten off a lot more than I could chew. Those months in that region brought me to my knees and I came as close to going home as any of you can possibly imagine. That was back in 2015. Since then I have depleted my own funds. I'm a working man and have been all my life. I had money set aside but that's all gone. I even had a small old sailboat which I sold and that money is gone too. I took a loan and that money is also gone. A second loan is keeping this project afloat and I would really like to see the crowdfunding campaign be launched soon. And it looks like it will! People are helping!! I've secured help from Rwanda, Canada and Denmark! I really hope that you are onboard with your support so we can make it to the last country in the world together!  We've been working hard at reaching the goal of this crowdfunding campaign. The video is nearly ready and is top professional! Curtesy of some strangers that became friends in Rwanda. The text has been looked at by a stranger from Canada who became a friend in Iceland. When I created this massive project I did it with some good friends back in Denmark. Everyone has their own lives, families, careers and yet they have offered the Saga time as well. The aim is USD 50,000 which is roughly $2.00 from each of you. Nobody needs to pay anything but if you want to help then it's sorely needed. 

 

No matter how the crowdfunding campaign turns out I won't quit!! There's no giving up within the Saga. It's always forward and you know it: we keep on keeping on! :)


Best regards

Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - forward!! ;)
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
 
 
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Romania - how little do you know?

 Since October 10th 2013: 137 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
 
 
Beauty in so many shades
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First of all you owe yourself to look closely at the finely sculptured faces of most Romanian women. You will not be disappointed.
 
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I recently discovered that my genes are 10.3% Balkan! Perhaps that explained my great love to the region? Romania is however not a part of the balkans but Serbia is and had to go through Serbia to reach Romania from Montenegro. That was quite the adventure! It has been said that the train ride from Montenegro to Serbia exposes some of the greatest beauty across Europe so I opted for an early morning departure. The beauty part may be true but it was raining and I was tired (was working until 3am the night before) and did not see a whole lot. After several hours our train suddenly stopped somewhere before the Serbian border and did not continue for another 2-3 hours. Crossing the border didn't cause any fuzz but later in the evening we stopped again and everyone had to get out. At this point two busses were waiting for us and we all embarked hoping to reach Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, soon after. To my surprise the bus brought us to another train? Then we all continued in that one for about another hour before reaching Belgrade. I checked into a really nice hostel around midnight and had a late dinner. It was another early morning wake up the following day to catch another train heading towards the Romanian border.
 
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I've been taking some heat lately for not visiting Hungary, Serbia and a number of other countries now. For that I just want to say that a number of countries in the Balkan and Eastern European region have already been visited throughout the beginning of the Saga. For more info go to www.onceuponasaga.dk and have a look at 'Journey'. I know I only spent around 26 hours in each country back then...but I hope to return again some day outside of the Saga and can surely come back some day.
 
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Vršac is a small place on the Serbian side of the border and the last stop for my train. I'd met a few other travelers on the train and we left the station building looking for a way to reach Timisoara, which is one of the larger cities in Romania. Romania is an EU country so for one of them it was a better deal to fly home to Germany from there. Taxi drivers were ready to take us across the border to a small town in Romania from where we could buy a ticket to Timisoara. The price was €20 which I wasn't ready to pay. Instead I bargained a price to the border, which was €10, and hope to find a solution? It was in a strange way fun to walk across a border again. It's been a while and this one was set in the middle of nowhere among fertile fields under a blue sky.
 
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Across the border it really didn't look like I would find any form of transport. Not unless I was willing to borrow a tractor. There was a truck parked on the side of the road sporting a Russian license plate and the driver simply gave me a "njet" and drove off without me. Great? I had a look at google maps and concluded that I had a 5km walk ahead of me under the baking sun. 5k is pretty long to walk with my duffel bag but doable. "Alright soldier - let's go..." I thought to myself. However it didn't take a minute before I heard a woman's voice shout: "hey! Do you need a ride?!". That was Andreea shouting at me. She is an engineer and so were Catalin and Florin who were in the car with her. Traian was also there...he's the younger brother of Andreea and was starting high school the following day. I was delighted to save my tired old legs from the 5k walk but even more delighted to hear that the car was heading all the way to Timisoara! That was an entire 60k! So thumbs up for that! Inside the car we immediately started talking and I explained about the Saga and how 'a stranger is a friend you've never met before' -it couldn't be more true.
 
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As it turns out Timisoara is quite the impressive city and proudly represents the main social, economic and cultural center in western Romania. These 3 engineers all studied in Timisoara and afterwards got hired into the automotive industry. There are plenty of jobs for engineers in Timisoara and it's not unlikely that 14 year old Traian would be in the same path. Andreea asked where I was heading and I replied I was in my way to Bucharest. She then quickly googled a train timetable while the fields were passing by outside. "The first train leaves after 10pm tonight so you have all day in Timisoara. What do you want to do?" she said. I replied that I would leave my bags somewhere and have a look at Timisoara. That triggered more hospitality and soon thereafter I was in their apartment drinking a nice cold local beer. Andreea then cooked us a homemade meal and afterwards we all went out to have a look at Timisoara!
 
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Timisoara is a very scenic city which does need a caring hand here and there but overall impresses. It was selected as the European Capital of Culture for 2021 and the city center is really nice! And interesting fun fact is that back in 1889 Timisoara became the first European city in Europe to have street lighting. It was actually the second in the world to have electric street lighting (behind Wabash in the USA, 1880). We walked around in the perfect summer weather, had an ice cream, walked and talked some more and finally settled down at a student hangout and enjoyed another beer and some snacks.
 
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At the end of the day we headed back to the apartment and eventually I was given a ride to the station where I bought my ticket. It's again one of those things...imagine if I had crossed the border to Romania 5 minutes later? If that was the case then I would have never met this group of fine ambassadors for Romanian hospitality.
 
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The train ride across the fat fish (the shape of Romania kind of looks a bit like a fish) was overnight and long. I was delighted and tired when the train rolled into Bucharest. Wifi was freely available at the station and across the city as I would later find out. In my past I worked 8 years for a Danish shipping company called Blue Water Shipping (www.bws.dk). My last year at Blue Water was the first year for Michael Petersen who happens to be the managing director of Shipco Transport (www.shipco.dk) in Bucharest today. He lives in Romania together with his beautiful wife Elif and as long as I was in Bucharest their home and hospitality was at my disposal. I got in touch with Michael immediately and we agreed to meet at his office in the evening. That gave me the day in Bucharest and in spite of what most of you think I should be doing I felt like pretending that I wasn't a traveling adventurer for a few hours. I headed straight for a mall where I knew there was a cinema. I enjoyed some hummus and meat at a Lebanese restaurant and then spent the next 2 hours watching the latest blockbuster with Tom Cruise. That felt like a much needed escape from reality. We are closing in on 4 years away from home and I'm having some difficulty remembering who I was when I left.
 
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That evening I met Michael again for the first time in many years. It was good to speak Danish for a bit and later on I was enjoying a delicious meal on the balcony of their home. Elif is very charming as most Turkish women I have met are. She works as a recruiter and is very easy to talk to. I guess you need to be if you're a recruiter? :) Michael and I got to catch up on old days. It turns out that he's been following the Saga on Facebook pretty much since I left home. That's quite the adventure he has been witnessing! I was given the guest room and my own bathroom. Life doesn't get much easier than that.
 
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The following day I was meeting Maersk Line (www.maersk.com) in the early afternoon and afterwards headed out to see the city center. The first mentions of Bucharest found in documents are in 1459. The historical center of Bucharest has lots of impressive buildings but is "modern" with plenty of cafes, restaurants, shops and life. It is very inviting. I like listening when people speak Romanian. Contrary to what many believe, Romanian is a Romance Language (Latin based) and does not have its roots in Slavic or Russian. Romania takes its name from the Roman Empire. It used to be the Kingdom of Dacia about 20 minutes before the romans conquered the region. Today Dacia lends its name to Romanias car manufacturer and has done so since 1966. Rome was the center of The Roman Empire. As mentioned Romania took its name from there but so did the gypsies who are a nomadic people which originally came from northern India and today call themselves Roma. So just to set things straight the Roma do not come from Romania although a large group of them settled in Romania and constitute around 3% of Romanias population...so they kind of do come from Romania...but just not originally...oh...you know what I mean :)
 
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Did you know that the mass transport system in Bucharest is the 4th largest in the world? Did you know that Romania is the source of inspiration for a book by Jules Verne? Did you know that the Romanian language dates back about 1,700 years? Did you know that the fountain pen was a Romanian invention? Did you know that the scientist who discovered insulin was Romanian (although Canadian scientists were awarded a Nobel prize for it). Did you know that the modern jet engine was invented by a Romanian? Did you know that Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) was Romanian born? Did you know that Romania is home to one of Europe's largest virgin forests? Did you know that the first ever perfect Olympic 10 was won by a Romanian gymnast? Well maybe you know some of this and maybe you didn't but at least now you know a lot more than just to reference Dracula. Dracula was by the way a fictive character in a Irish book and was loosely inspired by the Romanian Prince Vlad Tepes. That's pretty much how we view our world I think? The few countries we have heard of get something attached to their names and that sticks for a very long time.
 
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Romania just happens to be a friendly and modern country in the European Union where you can go skiing in the winter and swimming in the summer. It's a country which has countless music festivals of which some are set in nature and play music around the clock for several days nonstop. Lakes, rivers, brown bears, universities, traditions, Game of Thrones, good food and beautiful women. No really! The women here deserve an extra look. Every country in the world has beautiful men and women however the truth is that some have more. Romania happens to fall into that category but I kind of knew that. Back in 2011 I was working in Bangladesh and one of the other expats was Amelia from Romania and although she was both married and had several children she still looked like a goddess. As it turned out she was a visual ambassador.
 
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The Romanian Red Cross (RRC) turned 141 years of age last year. Well done on the humanitarian platform! My schedule with the RRC was compact and ran from 9am to 9pm which turned out to be highly interesting but also rather exhausting. They enjoy a good reputation in Romania where the man on the street is likely to know the RRC for being people who help other people. I was fortunate to have the privilege of visiting a group of young spirited people at the CIRESARII orphanage where I received a tour of the premises and afterwards got to have a good time with the kids. It's part of the RRC in sector 5 and it's a place that makes a huge difference! I was treated like an honorary guest and was asked to sign everyone's notebooks and tell about the Saga. I would really like to come back some day. On that note we were seated at a large wooden table and everyone took turn to introduce themselves. The first two introduced themselves and followed up by saying thank you for visiting and that they hoped I would come back again. To this I responded that I hoped so too and knocked on wood to their great surprise. After having done that a few times Andra, who had been translating, stopped me and said: "in Romania knocking on wood is something you do if there is something you DON'T WANT!" Ups!! I quickly explained that where I'm from it has the opposite meaning and apologized. Culture can be a funny thing at times and sometimes tricky too :)
 
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As the program went long we had to postpone a visit to Romanias highly unique parliament building. The following day that was remedied as I met up with Andreea of the RRC in front of the mega structure. Together we headed to the entry where we met with Michaela who works within the enormous building and has done so for the past 4 years. We were invited as guest and got to see a lot which was off the beaten path of the organized scheduled tours. The building is the largest and heaviest administrative building on the planet (used for civilian purposes) and the second largest administrative building overall, after the Pentagon. The building houses the Romanian Senate and the Romanian Chamber of Deputies, and it is also the headquarters of the Southeast European Cooperation Initiative. This thing is even 2% larger than the Cheops Pyramid in Egypt and some say it can be seen from the moon although I doubt that if we're speaking with the naked eye.

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Also known as the “People’s House”, it was Nicolae Ceausescu’s attempt to redesign Bucharest by constructing a series of impressive buildings meant to prove to the world how wealthy and powerful the Socialist Republic of Romania was under his dictatorship. The constructions began in 1983 when Romania was under the communist reign and by the time of the Romanian Revolution in 1989 the building wasn’t yet finished. Only the finest materials were used and it's a real classical beauty in very fine detail. Several factories were constructed only to fabricate specifically for this! It's the kind of stuff you can get away with as a dictator. I figure the new metro ring in Copenhagen would be done by now if Denmark was a dictatorship.

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I have seen many prominent castles, cathedrals, mosques and other structures in my life. The interior of the People's House lives up to a 17th century construction in my opinion. It's very impressive! I had been within the building for less than 2 hours before I found myself on a balcony overlooking the great city of Bucharest. I leaned myself forward by putting my hand on the balconies ledge and saw a pidgin fly away. Then I noticed something on my hand. Damn pidgins!!! Later on it struck me that within a few hours of visiting parliament I already had shit on my hands!! ;)

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Romania begs for more time of a visitor. I figured that it might be the Eastern most country within the European Union but that turns out to be Finland. Fossils that date back around 40,000 years were discovered in Romania 15 years ago so I'm sure that people have known for a long time what I know now: Romania is a wonderful, friendly and interesting country and I fear that there is no other cure than to return again some day.

 
 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - done with another entry.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
 
 
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Black birds and black mountains (Kosovo & Montenegro)

Since October 10th 2013: 136 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
 
 
I was flamed for being nice
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I didn't know it before I met Ylli, but "being flamed" is slang for taking verbal abuse. The Saga is a nice project. The Saga inspires, educates and entertains. The Saga informs about the Red Cross Red Crescent movement and it promotes every country country in the world positively. Not everyone wants the last part...
 
It's really easy to travel from Macedonias capital Skopje to Kosovos capital Pristina. I got on €5 bus and bada-bing! I was there 2.5 hours later. Looking out the window of the bus nothing has changed. It was still mountainous and beautiful. It was still agriculture which dominated the scene: grapes, grains, vegetables...plants and soil do not give any thought to borders and politics.
 
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Kosovo literally translates into: field of blackbirds.
 
Kosovo provides yet another debate for what is a country and what is not. While the Vatican (for me) continues to be the dumbest country in the world (until proven otherwise) I can add no such title to Kosovo. Kosovo may not be a United Nation (UN) member but does that matter at all? The UN is a club and not being in the club does not mean that you are not a country. Kosovo is the youngest European country and was formed in 2008. Today, almost 10 years later, Kosovo has received 115 diplomatic recognitions - 111 from UN countries which adds up to over 57%. I do not have a good definition for what is a country and what is not. However for years I have maintained that if at least half the worlds countries recognize you for being a country; then you are a country. Serbia would strongly disagree! Serbia presides over an enormous regional amount of history. Serbias capital Belgrade sits on top of at least 8,000 years of history and ranks among the oldest in Europe! Serbia became a principality in 1815 and a kingdom in 1882. It was then a part of Yugoslavia from 1912 and declared independence in June 2006. In 2008 the parliament of the province of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence with mixed response from the international community. Serbia has never approved of this however its government has begun to "normalize" relationships with its former province.
 
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Remember Ylli? We coincidently both featured in this brief appearance on Al Jazeera when I was 6,000k away in Djibouti: https://youtu.be/qD_IyfS5u80
 
Kosovo has enjoyed extensive support from the United States of America to such a degree that some people in Pristina jokingly refer to Kosovo as a "USA state in the balkans". Anyway...I declared on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that I was exited to reach the Sagas country number 135!! This received a few angry outbursts such as: "time to unfollow" and "fuck off". There was also a little more severe "flaming" which isn't entirely appropriate or necessary to reproduce here. I checked out the profiles and sure enough they were Serbian. One had been following since 2014...what a shame.
 
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Personally I feel that Kosovo is a bit of a strange country? It's ethnicity is up towards 90% Albanian which means that the Albanian flag is dominant throughout the country and so is the language. When I asked several people from Kosovo if it wouldn't make more sense to become a part of Albania then I was told that the difference between the people was to great. I don't know if you can compare it to suddenly bringing Italian or Irish New Yorkers back to their original European countries. Or Haitians back to West Africa. Probably not a spot on example but yet some idea in the right direction. Albania wasn't a part of Yugoslavia and Kosovo was. 
 
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The NEWBORN monument gets a "make over" every year. This year the N and the W has been laid down to spell 'NO WALLS' on the ground.
 
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Pristina is worth a visit. Nights in Pristina are amazing.
 
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You can definitely sense that Kosovo is a young country and I wouldn't know what to say if someone asked of me to define something typically Kosovan? It's not the food, the clothes nor the language. Perhaps it could relate to a mentality but I didn't stay long enough to read it. Probably Kosovo needs more time to form into a good wine. A lot of Balkan countries, by the way, happen to claim they have better wine than France. I don't know much about wine either...but I know what I like ;) Pristina is a great name for a capital. It's not a pretty city to me. Pristina looks like it was built really fast in recent times by 50 different contractors who didn't all finish. Meanwhile there are are some really nice places in Pristina such as the Boulevard Nene Tereza which cuts through the center of the city. It is actually exceptionally nice! People are nice too. The food is good and plentiful. Most museums are free and the surrounding landscape is breathtaking with its mountains and green fields. Euro is the Kosovar currency and a meal goes for about €2-3! It's a very kind country towards a $20/day budget.
 
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The Kosovo Red Cross are doing an amazing job. Lots of activities! And by government law you can't get your drivers license in Kosovo without first passing your first aid exam. http://www.redcross-ks.org/new/ supplies the course and administers the exam.
 
The country itself boast lots of interesting things for its visitors. Tourism isn't well developed yet but has great potential. Much of the historical tourism relates to various remnants from periods in history of vanished empires, kingdoms and countries. Geographically it is highly suitable for hiking and exploring canyons and caves. While there are distinct differences to be found within the Balkan Peninsula you'll quickly notice a lot of similarities as well. A really important and delightful similarity is that the people are fantastically friendly and forthcoming. Really if I were you: I'd just get here really quick and stay off the topic of politics ;)
 
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Prizren is worth a visit.
 
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Getting to Montenegro was something else! I was given the option between taking the bus from Kosovo to Montenegro's capital Podgorica. However I was told that the road wasn't great. The other option was to go through the northern part of Albania where I was told that the road was really good! Actually it didn't sound like much of a choice. What was lost in translation was however that the bus heading through Albania didn't go to Podgorica. That bus only went as far as Ulcin (in Montenegro just across the border from Albania). Both busses only left in the evening. Time wasn't really on my side as I had committed to meeting with the Red Cross of Montenegro the following morning at 9am. I was dreaming about a nice luxury bus and a fairly good nights sleep. Instead I was served an uncomfortable seat which did not provide me with enough legroom. It was probably a Chinese bus and my kneecaps were pressed firmly into the back of the seat before me. The seat before me had a grumpy old man who enjoyed banging his back into the seat so we had a lot of fun that night. The bus stopped 3-4 tiles and since I had an aisle seat I had to get up each time as the fellow next to me always wanted out. Crossing the borders was no hassle and the road was really good. The unwanted bonus was for me to arrive at Ulcin at 03:30am having to wait 2.5 hours for a bus to Podgorica. That is really not the time of the day you want to wait for anything! I think I managed about 2 hours of sleep on a bench before getting on another bus reaching Podgorica at 08:00am. I freshened up at the bus terminals public toilets looking slightly human around 08:30am and walked to the Red Cross reaching them at 9am. 
 
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Montenegro literally translates into: black mountains.
 
At the Red Cross of Montenegro everything became so much easier! I was greeted by a delegation of smiling women who were friendly and curious to discover what kind of madman who would undertake such an adventure as the Saga? I was offered tea and breakfast while I rambled on about the world, challenges, strangers, friends, inspiration, the Red Cross, the media, my fiancée, my past, the future, logistics and a whole lot more! These women were great! They had laid out a formidable plan for my visit and offered me true Montenegrin hospitality on every account. 
 
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Roma children in the classroom at Konik. Solid work carried out by a dedicated National Society: www.ckcg.co.me
 
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From tent camps to newly constructed apartment buildings.
 
Marta is a dedicated programme coordinator and introduced me to their impressive results of creating better life conditions for Roma populations in Montenegro. I was shown around at Camp Konik where the Red Cross had successfully implemented education, health and social inclusion on a large scale. What used to be tent camps had become apartment buildings and children were growing like flowers through education, music workshops and contact with Red Cross volunteers. It's a new page in the book for more than 1,000 people and it wouldn't have come to this without international cooperation, great dedication, vision and passion. Well done Marta and everyone else :)
 
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Later that day Natasa, international relations, arranged for me to see a bit of Montenegro. Did you know that Montenegro is frequently referenced as one of Europe's most beautiful countries? I don't dispute it! From this point on it wasn't about the Red Cross anymore - it was about Montenegro. Vesko and Goran from the office joined us and together the 4 of us raced out of Podgorica and into the mountains. We made a brief stop at Citinje, which is the old royal capital of Montenegro. Montenegro is truly "littered" with interesting history and I don't know where to start and when to stop. The history dates back well before the Roman Empire but let's just start there. That was followed by the Byzantine empire and then around 650 years ago it became a kingdom. Later on it developed into a "Prince-Bishopric" (for 150 years) and nurtured the great Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, who was not only Prince-Bishop but was also a poet and philosopher whose works are widely considered some of the most important in Montenegrin and Serbian literature! Besides his mausoleum is located on top of a mountain which is overlooking Citinje providing stunning views for those who venture up there. The Prince-Bishopric discontinued as government and state was separated.  It became a principality, a kingdom and was then swallowed by Yugoslavia until independence in 2006. And don't forget that there was 500 years of influence from the Ottoman Empire too! ;)
 
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Vesko climbed to the top with me so we could take a peak at Petar II Petrović-Njegoš' mausoleum and its impressive surroundings.
 
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I really can't go into every little detail of that day. Suffice to say that it was a good day and that Montenegro begs for much more time. When you start doing research on Montenegro you'll quickly discover and endless list of things to do and see. It shouldn't be possible considering the size of the country. It's however true. How about this for a random fact: more than 5,000 artifacts were found in a cave called 'Crvena Stijena' (red rock) and this archeological site dates back around 180,000 years! Or how about this: Biogradska Gora is the site of one of the last three large virgin forests in Europe and it's a rainforest!?
 
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From left to right: Vesko, Natasa and Goran.
 
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Kotor old town.
 
Natasa, Vesko, Goran and I managed to see some old towns as well and if I was to go into detail then this would be a book. Just book your next vacation to the balkans and go and be amazed. The day ended rather late and I still had to get online to reply to emails, updating social media and getting my bearings. I could have been classified as "living dead" when my head hit the pillow. That was a LONG but fruitful day thanks to Natasa and the gang.
 
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I get a distinct feeling that it's good to be a guy at the Red Cross in Montenegro.
 
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They love meat in Montenegro. Here's my "meat with meat". Traditional food served for tourists ;)
 
Today I was guided about by a group of Red Cross volunteers who wanted to show me Podgorica. It has me wondering if I've met anyone in Montenegro who wasn't Red Cross? Anyway it was raining and we defied the elements to see as much as possible. Podgorica is a nice and modern city however there isn't much to see compared with the countries cultural richness. Definitely a nice city but I'd "get out there" if I were you. As it turns out people in both Kosovo and Montenegro are just people. Who would have thought? ;) There are Game of Thrones billboards on the roadsides, fidget spinners in the shop windows, lots of Facebook and WhatsApp accounts and people get married and fall in love here too...or is it the other way around? I haven't applied for a visa for a few months now and in spite of Montenegro's fancy name the country is very generous to my budget as well. 
 
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Hram Hristovog Vaskserja is impressive inside and out. 
 
Before I sign off I just want to tell you that people around here are kind, warmhearted, curious and genuine. You win more than you loose by heading this way.
 
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I don't want to leave...I do have to go.
 
Thank you!
 

Best regards

Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - gone.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
 
 
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Once Upon a Saga
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