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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"Everyone wants to be a Greek" and Macedonia

Since October 10th 2013: 134 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
 
 
Countries are countries because of people and nothing else
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An old Greek legend says that when God created the world, he sifted all the soil onto the earth through a strainer. After every country had good soil, he tossed the stones left in the strainer over his shoulder and created Greece.
 
When you think about Greece you probably think about thousands of islands, the Mediterranean Sea, white and blue houses, the Acropolis, feta cheese and olives. Fair enough. In recent times the financial crisis might also come to mind. We all know that the Olympic Games and the marathon distance are inherited from Greece and it shouldn't surprise you that thousands of words in the English language, democracy, western philosophy, western literature, historiography, political science, major scientific and mathematical principles and Western drama have all arrived from Greece. However what exactly do we mean when we say Greece? The country's official name is the Hellenic Republic and declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. That is long after most of the things we credit Greece for. In fact Ancient Greece nearly ceased to exist at one point. The Mediterranean Sea has been a highly active territory for thousands of years with numerous impressive empires and kingdoms. Greece was throughout history mostly not united as a country but instead several smaller independent states. However who cares when you're chewing into your Souvlaki :)
 
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Yes! Souvlaki is a clear Greek favorite. However the Greek cuisine has thousands of dishes waiting for you!
 
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The Acropolis museum is worth a visit.
 
Alexander the Great was the son of Philip of Macedon who united most of Greece more than 2,000 years ago. Then his son (one of my heroes) more or less conquered the entire known world proving himself worthy of the tittle "great". He was undefeated in battle and is widely considered one of history's most successful military commanders. Then later on Greece was annexed by the Roman Empire, next the Byzantine Empire and in the 15th century it fell under the Ottoman Empire (from which today's Greece declared its independence nearly 200 years ago). So your definition of Ancient Greece largely depends on which period of history you favor. Today's Greece is modern, friendly, beautiful and undeniably interesting with its 9 geographical regions (of which one is named Macedonia) covering over lands that whisper ancient stories to those who are willing to listen.
 
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With the impressive manmade Corinth Canal in the background!
 
I entered by bus from Albania which was an interesting bus ride. Especially the border crossing which reminded me of more complicated times where everyone had to get out of the bus and all luggage was searched. However it went easy enough. I reached Athens which is the highly historical capital of Greece and I located a hostel. I then reached out to Raphael who had reached out to me long ago saying that he would be happy to help me. Well now I was finally in Greece and Raphael responded with an invitation to meet with him and his wife Lilli. Raphael is actually from Switzerland while Lilli is Greek. They just so happened to be in Greece with their 3.5 year old little wonder, Andrea, visiting Lilli's family. I accepted their invitation to join them for the weekend at Lilli's childhood home in Anifi, Peloponnese (mainland Greece).
 
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Anifi is a gorgeous little town surrounded by orange trees and fields of olives. What a great way to discover true Greek hospitality which I really must stress is a trademark for the Greeks. Hospitality and sticking together as friends and family. Lilli and Raphael are both scientists educated within the field of biology but they are also involved with the family business www.anyfion.com/, which grows and exports a delicious variety of fresh bio-products to meet with the market needs in Switzerland. As a result of my weekend stay-over I now know a great deal more about oranges, olives and capers :)
 
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George (facing us) with his guitar singing some of his brother's favorite songs.
 

Lilli grew up with 2 brothers: Andreas and George. At the age of 34 Andreas suddenly passed away. It was in 2012. Since then, his older brother and sister organized for an annual social event to bring everyone together and remember him as he was. I find it to be a wonderful way to be remembered. Andreas loved football and played with the number 10. T-shirts were made with his name and the number. T-shirts people bring every year. Andreas also loved his friends, his family, good food and good music. So every year, on the date when they lost him, friends and family get together, play football, have a good time, fire up the BBQ, have a few drinks and play some of his favorite songs on the guitar. Absolutely wonderful.

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I had too many of these!! They tasted too well!!!

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Having a good time with Nikos and his son Dimitris. Dimitris is an educated Agronomist and gave this entry its title by stating: "Everyone wants to be a Greek!" His dad taught me the meaning of the word: "malaka" ;)

I was invited to join and it was amazing. The Greek are (as far as I'm concerned) very social creatures. They stick together through good and bad times and know each other with everyone's strengths and weaknesses. There may be a stronger social bond between people in the countryside than in the city...however the culture generally transcends the nation as far as I understand. I had a great time and learned a few new words in the process. Most people appeared a little shy towards me in the beginning but that quickly change!! People are just people. And people are amazing ;)

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The following day Lilli and Raphael invited me to join them at a Greek Orthodox baptism and I had to dress up...just a little bit. No problem though as it was still quite casual and I sort of fit Raphaels clothes. The baptism of little Dimitris went without a hitch. For the most part it took place outside the church and was another really social event. Every once in a while someone would go into the church and see what was going on? The loudspeaker outside sounded some Greek singing and praising and apparently encompassed the blessing of the water. A big part of the event was to see how "aggressive" the priest would be and weather he would dip Dimitris completely into the water or just splash some on him? It was also of great interest to see how Dimitris would handle it? He didn't cry at all.

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Traditionally you wouldn't call little Dimitris for "Dimitris" until he is baptized. You just call him "baby". And you're also not supposed to cut his hair before this date which was a year after his birth. His name came from his proud grandfather Dimitris, who was walking about with a great smile in his face. An even bigger part of the baptism was the food and drinks that followed afterwards :)

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Sometimes a picture speaks a thousand words :)

Lilli and Raphael provided me with a great opportunity to see more of Greece than I otherwise would have done. And they, along with the town of Anifi, were amazing hosts and great ambassadors of Greece. Their daughter Andrea would sometimes briefly confuse me for being Raphael to our amusement. Especially while I was wearing his clothes. They brought me back to Athens after a few days just a few hours before they boarded a plane back home to Switzerland. A stranger is a friend you've never met before ;)

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This photo does the landscape no justice. Just trust me: it was astonishing!!

After a few nights in Athens I got on a train to Thessaloniki and I was pretty much speechless from observing the incredible landscape of mainland Greece. I've had the fortune of visiting Greece two times before the Saga. Once in the 90s and the second time around 2006. On both occasions we went to islands (Santorini and Poros) with a short stop in Athens on one occasion. If Greece is undergoing a crisis today I didn't notice it. Life looked fairly good on the surface and crisis is in any case a strong word. However I don't see everything. I did in any case see a beautiful country with compassionate people and a rich history.

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Hanging with the Maersk team in Athens.

After my presentation at www.maerskline.com in Athens I was approached by Babis from their Thessaloniki office. Babis wanted to help me out and offered that I could probably get on a truck from Thessaloniki in Greece to Skopje in Macedonia (country). This was quickly arranged and I was told to go and meet Petar at the port the following morning. This proved a little easier said than done as the security guards at the gate my €5 taxi brought me too wouldn't let me in. Another taxi (€10) took me on quite the adventure to reach another gate at the far end of the port. That's where I met Petar from Macedonia (country) who is a friendly truck driver. He treated me as royalty and we both took off to a nearby container terminal where we had to wait a lot before we got our empty 20' container. Greece and Macedonia are not on friendly terms. It's not armed conflict or anything like that but it is a little more than friendly teasing. Such a nice Macedonian truck driver as Petar can get sidetracked a lot at a Greek container terminal while Greek drivers get the deluxe treatment. It's the kind of bureaucratic hassle you might find anywhere in the world: "oh I'm sorry...we haven't received the fax release of your container yet. Please wait". Meanwhile the office swears they have sent the fax several times. 

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The sun doesn't always shine in Greece. My last night was thunder and lightning.

So what's the issue between Greece and Macedonia? Well, for one it's the name. You may remember that Greece has 9 regions of which one is called Macedonia? After the Balcan Wars in 1913 Greece officially acquired the entire region of Macedonia but lost part of the territory during WW1 (1914-1918). The lost territory was known as the Republic of Macedonia and was a part of Yugoslavia until 1991 when Macedonia declared independence. Yugoslavia was a country which came into existence in 1918 after WWI. Greece was never a part of Yugoslavia and has far more political strength than Macedonia does. Because of Greece, Macedonia must call itself: Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. That's a bit of a mouthful? Officially it is however called the Republic of Macedonia. I'd like to point out that there are 2 countries called Congo which where once both a part of the Congo Empire. Officially one is known as the Democratic Republic of Congo while the other is the Republic of Congo. You also have Ghana which derived its name from the Ghana Empire which later went on to become the Mali Empire, which as the name suggests was in modern day Mali. In this case one Macedonia is a country and the other is simply one of 9 regions and it overall just seems to be a very silly thing to waste too much energy on. Furthermore Alexander the Great was from (ancient) Macedonia which would have been in both the country Macedonia and the today's Greek region called Macedonia. His birthplace was in Pella which is actually on the Greek side and guess what? Yes! Both Greece and Macedonia claim him. Isn't that wonderful? Two countries both want the bragging right over a military commander who lived more than 2,000 years ago in a kingdom that hasn't existed for more than 2,000 years. You might as well have men and women debating who the moon belongs to as both can see it ;) People are just people. People are amazing. And yes...people are irrational and silly too. You'd think there were more important things to spend energy on?

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Petar is not rehearsing karate. The sun was just pretty sharp ;)

Petar and I reached the border of Macedonia, and "Macedonia" will throughout the remaining blog mean the country ;)

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Macedonia is that tiny Balkan country crammed with mountains, lakes, grapes and about 2 million people. It's a wonderful country with rich history and culture which dates back as far as...oh well...we've been through that already. It's complicated ;)


It's a friendly and peaceful country with temperatures reaching up to 45 degrees this summer (113 Fahrenheit) and can have temperatures of -30 degrees in the winter (-25 Fahrenheit). By the way...did you guys know that the USA is the ONLY country in the WORLD which still uses Fahrenheit to measure temperatures? Sorry, got sidetracked there... Macedonia is a member of the United Nations and is slowly heading in the direction of becoming an European Union country, too. 
 
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Dojran Lake.
 
Eventually Petar and I rolled into Skopje (capital) and parted our ways. I reached my $10 dorm room in a nice hostel where I met a couple of Danish Danes from Denmark! Ah! The Vikings are to be found everywhere :) We headed out for dinner together and I learned a new variation of a familiar card game which I'm dying to try out on my fiancée when she shows up in a few weeks.
 
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The food is SOOO good!
 
Skopje is, according to the locals, a city which has undergone a lot of change in the past 10 years. A lot of renovation and modernization. Lots of statues commemorating revolutionary heroes and important historical figures have appeared. I overheard a couple of US American women telling the receptionist at my hostel: "it's just such a lovely city!! It really reminds me of Scandinavia!!" I don't know which resemblance they found to Scandinavia but I'll definitely agree on Skopje being a nice city. About 500,000 people live in Skopje and I wouldn't be surprised if they are all friendly. The city feels more like a large town and is surrounded by mountains. The Vardar River runs through it, there are plenty of green areas, lots of restaurants and cafes, plenty of interesting architecture and it all compliments my very limited budget. 
 
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Grapes!
 
Macedonia is well known for fresh produce such as grapes and oranges. There's a ski resort which I'm dying to try out some day! Europes oldest lake is found within Macedonia. The language is Slavic and not nearly as old as Albanian or Greek but at least as hard for me to pronounce :) The City Red Cross of Skopje was very welcoming and is quite a place! The walls inside are covered with pictures, rewards, diplomas, campaigns, programs and memorabilia. Every wall looks like a Red Cross museum. The structure of the Macedonian Red Cross is solid and there is no doubt that the staff and volunteers are motivated. They deal with many of the ordinary humanitarian activities such as blood donations, first aid and dissemination of the 7 fundamental principles. As it is with the Red Cross Red Crescent in nearly every country, there is also great work being carried out within disaster prevention, disaster risk reduction and when required; disaster response. What caught my eye was however 3 areas:
 
1) In 2015 there were more than 1 MILLION refugees and migrants which transited through Macedonia on their way through Europe. The Macedonian Red Cross was and is still actively supporting and helping these vulnerable people in many different ways. One element is the Restoring Family Links programme in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
 
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At the City Red Cross of Skopje with Aleksandra and Aleksandra. They keep names simple in Macedonia ;)
 
2) Assisting and guiding the visually impaired and blind. Life is kind of hard enough as it is. Imagine being blind as well? The Red Cross is always there for the vulnerable and having no vision definitely falls into that category. In this programme people learn to read, they are taught languages, they are given confidence. The goal of the workshops is advancing their skills through interactive types of education, socialization and motivation to become active and humane community members. What was really interesting for me was to sit and talk with Emma, who was born blind and happens to be a gifted piano player. We sat and talked and I observed her useless eyes move about as she was thinking. I found that interesting. Why would they do that? More interesting to me was when I said something she found funny and smiled. How would someone who has never seen a smile know to do that? Is that genetic? Is it instinct? In any case Emma is proof that no vision isn't all about limitations. I'm the only one without glasses in my family and I can't play the piano :)
 
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3) I had the opportunity to greet a group of if curious long term unemployed women over the age of 40. One looked at me and said something to everyone's amusement. Seconds later I had the English version: "you are very handsome!" :) In a project called "Creating opportunities for new employment of women” over 50 candidates have been chosen to receive training as home helpers for elderly who need home care assistance. It's the beginning of a new life for these women. Some of them had never been on a bus before joining this program. I tip my hat to them. These women are among the few that understand that change comes from action. It's easy to do nothing in life.
 
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Aleksandra invited me out for some traditional food and a local beer. Alexander the Great in the back.
 
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I'm honestly quite worn out. I really don't have the energy I wish I had. The Saga is 100% on schedule regarding the plan I have laid out for our rite to the Middle East. I just wasn't smart enough to add any resting days and so I have rested while in Macedonia. The Saga is accomplex project with a lot of difficult aims and it's always on my mind. It's among many other things a very trying physical and mental exercise of enormous proportions. I feel it weighing down on me. However, as many have pointed out "these are the easy days". No checkpoints, no visas, lots of transport options, no malaria...we've come far...really far!
 

Here are some numbers for you:

 

Start: Denmark, Oct. 10th 2013

Now: Macedonia, Sept. 3rd 2017

Distance: 181,686km (112,894mi)

Average speed: 5.3kph (3.3mph)

Countries visited: 134

Countries left: 69

Average time/country: 10.6 days

 

Final country: Maldives

Projected end date: Sept. 4th 2019

 

Every single country in a single unbroken journey completely without flying! 

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I'm thinking about offering 15,000 euro to anyone who can complete a visit to every country in Africa under the following pretenses:

- no flight.

- no return home.

- min 24 hrs in each country.

- no corruption.

- all visas done on the African continent.

 

I don't have 15,000 euro to offer though. However it would be interesting to see if anyone who took up the challenge could ever complete it? I did it - and you don't know half of what it took to do so ;)

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Zlatko reminds me of a Balkan Hemingway but really is the owner of www.bluebell.com.mk a succesfull trucking company (Petar works for Blue Bell). Zlatko is a traveler and adventurer at heart but life took him somewhere else. He donated €100 to the Saga and I couldn't stop him from it!! The crowdfunding campaign is coming up - I hope you are ready for it? :)

Macedonia is certainly wonderful enough to make it on my bucket list. I'll be back some day under different conditions and I'll look forward to exploring Macedonia some more. See you then. Next up is Kosovo...

 

Best regards

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