"Rest of the World" story # 3

Lake Belmeken, Bulgaria           August 5, 2013

"A lonely wolf," Maja called me. I was on the eve of another great trip.
     I let her know she could come with me if she wanted. Wolves didn't always want to be lonely.
     But, I doubted whether any girl could realistically be happy traveling with me. Seeing the world was my priority; any girl willing to follow my path would, seemingly, be prioritizing me. This would make for an uneven relationship. And how would she like it when I spent a full day each week writing?
     Maja said she'd like to come but had work commitments and other travels planned. Her relationship with her boyfriend, however, was a day away from being over. I felt that a bright future awaited her.
     As for me, I planned to hitchhike to Turkey and Central Asia. Because there were tall mountains in eastern Turkey and Georgia which I hoped to visit, I changed my traditional belief that the hot summer would be a bad time to visit Central Asia. I decided to postpone my trip to Ethiopia until afterwards.
     I'd made this decision while visiting my beloved small town called Rymarov, in the eastern Czech Republic. I'd come here with great relief from big and impersonal Prague. I'd been calling it "my second home" since teaching high school here eight years ago. This time, my tongue slipped and I just called it: "Home."
     "Where would you be happy living?" had been a common conversation topic among the Johnnies in Baltimore. Since I only had a year of traveling left before I would answer that question myself, this visit to Rymarov was significant.
     I visited an old countryside home recently purchased by a young couple I knew. The big house needed a lot of work. But, my friends already had dogs and sheep and a goat and friendly neighbors and a baby boy. They looked tan and healthy. Their home seemed happy.
     I saw old friends in Rymarov and had new experiences. Ondra and his girlfriend Monika - my longtime basketball teammates - took me to play in a singles tennis tournament, and go outdoor rock-climbing. (I lost pathetically in tennis: 3-6, 0-6, 2-6, 0-6. But, I did make it up the cliff a few times!) Klara Sigmundova - my best Czech friend - cooked me a great farewell dinner: turkey breast in a cayenne-pepper sauce; spicy sauteed cauliflower, eggplant, and red pepper; cauliflower in vinegar; and salty fried Portuguese potatoes. Yum!
     I felt good among my many friends in Rymarov. I loved being able to walk everywhere. But on July 24th, I began hitchhiking, so I could reach the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia while it was summer.
     Georgia was 2000 miles away. An hour into my trip, I was pleased to meet two Slovakian hitchhikers with the same destination. My drivers at this time - a Catholic couple from Slovakia's large Hungarian minority - asked if I wouldn't mind them squeezing in next to me. "Get lost!" I told them, as I ate the fried chicken sandwich and watermelon my drivers had given me. "That's my backseat!"
     Just kidding. Soon, Ondrej and Barbora were eating watermelon next to me in the back of Tibor and Ildiko's car.
     Charismatic Ondrej wore his wavy blond hair pushed back to his shoulders, a plaid shirt buttoned down halfway, a talisman necklace, and a spiky pink shell bracelet. He traveled with a Slovakian instrument called a "koncovka". This flute-like piece of wood had only one hole on each end: one for blowing into, one for tapping your finger over. It had a high pitch.
     Barbora had glasses and a soft round face and a tickled happy accent. She kept smiling, so happy to be on the road. She seemed tickled and worry-free by the whole experience. I thought: it must be terribly fun to travel with a girl.
     Tibor and Ildiko took us to the Slovakian-Hungarian border. A local woman drove us past Budapest. And then we split up.
     But I would find these friends again the next day, beside a gas station in Serbia. I happily let them squeeze into another backseat with me, this time in a car driven by Andrej and Magda. These drivers were headed to Greece for a "Rainbow" gathering - a giant hippy festival.
     We all wanted a break from the ugly highway by the afternoon. Andrej the Slovakian sales manager - who loved hippies and hitchhikers and speaking Serbian - drove us towards Lake Gruzensko in the countryside. He told us how he'd nearly died in a car accident years ago. Hearing this, I silently urged him to keep his eyes on the road. He'd gone on to study philosophy in an attempt to understand death, but his studies had left him unsatisfied.
     We swam and camped beside Lake Gruzensko. The discolored green lake smelled bad and was full of floating dead fish.
     Ondrej found ripe blackberries nearby. Collecting them, he told me about the wonders of hallucinogenic experiences. Doing magic mushrooms, he and his friends had seen the same paranormal images. He said the same experiences were possible via meditation, too.
     The next morning, Ondrej and Barbora practiced acrobatic yoga. Some of us swam with a dead snake. And then, we were off.
     Magda the German student had noodles of brown hair that fell past her sun-glasses, onto her bright yellow tanktop. She asked Ondrej and Barbora: What was their secret for staying together so long? - to taking so many fun trips together?
     "Swimming with dead fish," Barbora said cutely.
     Ondrej said seriously, "Communication. ... We have lots of similar activities we like to do. ... We also let each other do their own thing."
     Barbora agreed. "But mostly, swimming with dead fish."

Andrej and Magda soon left us to continue south. Ondrej and Barbora got picked up by a Turkish trucker. I was all alone.
     From this point in southern Serbia, the road to the east would go through a gorge that resembled a pulled-apart mountain. I was driven through here by Rashid, an Iraqi Kurd who was traveling from his new home in England to visit his wife and daughters in Iraq. He was very interesting.
     We discussed Saddam Hussein. My driver said he'd been a good leader for twenty-five years, but very bad for ten. He once killed three thousand Kurds, including women and children, by picking them out and shooting them. And he used chemical weapons on a Kurdish village, killing five thousand, just because Iranians had been entering that village.
     "Little babies died," said my dark, moustachioed driver.
     Rashid had been an officer in charge of tanks in Hussein's army for eleven years. For eight years, he fought Iran. Once, he and four others hid beneath the floor of a building while Iranians looked for them. Nobody took prisoners in this war. Iranian soldiers were found wearing small keys around their necks; they told the Iraqis they'd been given them by their leader Khomeini, as a guarantee to the next world.
     The U.S.A. had supported Iraq during this war. But then, Saddam Hussein (and Rashid) invaded Kuwait. The U.S. began fighting against Iraq. Rashid knew his side was overmatched. Just like me in a tennis tournament. He abandoned his tank and ran all the way back up to Iraqi Kurdistan. If Hussein's men would've found him, they would've killed him for desertion.
     Rashid fled all the way to England - getting across borders by hiding in the backs of trucks. Now, he had a British passport.
     I left him at the Serbian-Bulgarian border, since he would be stopping in nearby Sofia today. I sought a quick ride to Turkey. Instead, I found a new hitchhiking companion ...
     A girl with curly brown hair stacked up on top of her head stumbled out of a Bulgarian's car. She came and sat down at a picnic table beside me and offered me some of her peanut butter on an apple. She seemed stoned at first - possibly because she was coming from the "Rainbow" gathering.
     Her name was Joanna, from Vancouver. She told me about the "Rainbow" gathering:
     Naked people. The Greek mountains. Tantric sex workshops. Greek shepherds walking by. No money exchanged. Two communal meals a day. No cameras nor cell-phones. Strangers massaging you. Five-minute hugs. No toilet paper. Dirty people. Smelly people. Everyone getting sick because the communal meals were made by people who didn't use toilet paper nor soap. A thousand people holding hands.
     It sounded good, Joanna.
     We decided to hitchhike to a mountain lake together. We made it as far as a pine forest in the foothills. We set up camp and spent the next sixteen hours lying in the soft grass and talking.
     Inquisitive Joanna asked me question after question. We discussed: Israel, Jewish writers, my writing, her collegiate year in Prague, family, home, romance, love.
     Joanna said her favorite quote on love was by the Czech writer, Kundera:
     "Love is a state of constant interrogation. I can think of no better definition for it than that."
     I guessed Joanna asked a lot of questions of everyone, not just me. I figured that was why she was so smart and interesting, though only twenty-one.
     She recommended I read Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving". It suggested that for a person to love even his spouse, he had to love everything in life: his job, town, family, etc. Maybe Joanna asked so many questions because she loved everything? Maybe people who rarely asked questions - for example, many Americans - didn't love life? Or maybe they just didn't love me?
     When it came to guys, Joanna could tell if she liked them by their smell. This had begun when her father asked her, about a high school boyfriend, "Does he smell right?" She thought about it and said, "Yes." In that case, her father approved. ... I didn't ask her how I smelled. I hadn't bathed since Lake Gruzensko.
     Eventually, we made it up to Bulgaria's Lake Belmeken: a blue expanse in a bowl of green, folded-up mountains. "Wow!"
     We sat beside the lake until the sun dipped below the rim of the mountain bowl. Joanna said bye and traveled back down to lower elevations; she'd be flying home soon. I climbed an 8500-ft.-tall mountain and meditated in the dark, as the timid sky of stars began to dazzle.
     I felt sad to be alone again. Through the qualities she possessed, Joanna had shown it could be possible for me to travel with a girl. She was athletic (she'd been kicking guys' butts at soccer all over East Europe - and with a little skill could've beaten me at tennis), independent, understanding, and good at communicating.

From then on, I communicated with Bulgarians while on my way to Turkey. I spoke with:
     A jolly guy named Krasomir, who wore overalls and beard stubble on his stout body and chubby face. He was in his twentieth year of work at Lake Belmeken's dam.
     A thin, innocent man named Dinko who drove me in his long-distance truck. He was sad his job paid him only 200 Euros a month. Yet, he happily conversed and energetically shook his head when I asked if he played soccer or fished. I had to keep reminding myself that in Bulgaria, a shake of the head meant "yes".
     And the large man, Dima, who drove me to Turkey. He'd participated in the protests that had been going on in front of Bulgaria's Parliament building for the past forty-nine days; the government had yet to meet with the protesters. He told me a Bulgarian saying regarding politics: "Sobaka laet karavanu, karavan idet." (The dog barks at the caravan, the caravan keeps going.) I asked about the days of communism. They'd been good, he said, a person could make a lot of money; but, he lived with the psychological fear that the KGB could come for him any minute.
     ... It delighted me to be able to speak Czech/Russian and be understood in Bulgaria. This was almost as fun as meeting new hitchhikers.

from Turkey,
the Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Milan; Pauly; Tibor & Ildiko; Brigida; Josef, a guy, & a daughter; Andrej & Magda; Rashid; Radjenko; Todor; a guy & Ando; Jurdan; Dmitr, Vasilit, & Ivan; three dam workers; Metodi & Boris; Aleksander; Lubomir & Bobi; Dinko; Aleks; and Dima for rides!
Much thanks to Klara Sigmundova & Pet'a Kutis for places to stay!

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