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
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 :)
Yes! Souvlaki is a clear Greek favorite. However the Greek cuisine has thousands of dishes waiting for you!
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.
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).
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 :)
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.
I had too many of these!! They tasted too well!!!
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 ;)
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.
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 :)
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 ;)
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.
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.
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?
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 ;)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 :)
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.
Aleksandra invited me out for some traditional food and a local beer. Alexander the Great in the back.
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!
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 ;)
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...