Finishing up my stay here in the Balkans with a hiking trip to the Prokletije Mountains in Eastern Montenegro was a good idea. Prokletije, in Serbian, means “cursed” or “damned”, and these mountains were believed to be created by the devil himself on a several-hour destruction spree when he was mistakenly let out of hell by the forces of good. Not sure if I believe that part, but the mountains are pretty cool.

Prokletije has been my last frontier in the region for quite some time, I was meant to hike in the region back in 2009 as part of a much larger trip but wasn’t able to at the time. Ever since then I’ve been meaning to come back. Once I realized I only had a matter of months left here I made it a point to get down there.

I flew in and out of Podgorica, then bussed all the way out to Gusinje, then walked the remaining eight or so kilometers out to Grbaja Valley, which was to be the base of my trip. The bus from Podgorica to Gusinje is heartbreakingly circuitous and equally beautiful. The first 30 or so minutes out of Podgorica follows the crystal-clear Morača River through a canyon that looks as though it was created by god dragging a fingernail through a not-yet-finished earth. I met a confused-looking Israeli couple (on their honeymoon!) who got on the bus in Kolašin with some hiking gear. I helped them out with navigating to their destination (which ended up being the same as mine, either by coincidence or change of plans) and communicating with the locals (who, for the record, are exceedingly difficult for me to communicate with as well, the mountain people in Montenegro have a strange accent). We got to Gusinje just in time to hear the call to prayer (the people in that area are Muslims who speak Serbian/Montenegrin), and headed out to the valley on foot, equipped with headlamps in the dwindling sunlight.

The next day we awoke to the beautiful scenery hidden by the previous night and met one of the locals. We spent most of the day hiking, but got back to the site with a bit of sunlight left. The family of the old man we met earlier invited us into their shack for some coffee and food. The eldest son entertained us on an instrument similar to a gusle, but with more strings. He called the thing a karaduze, and evidently it’s pretty specific to the region. The grandmother, a typical keva, was busily cooking up some lamb and cornbread in their wood stove and preparing some homemade cheese. The food was fantastic, and the conversation a bit painstaking as I had to translate and try to keep up with their fast-paced conversation in an unfamiliar dialect.

The Israelis left the following morning, and I headed up to a pass called Krošnjina Vrata down the valley a ways on my own. This was definitely the most rewarding hike I’ve ever done. The last segment was a mad dash against the sun, sunlight in the valley is a rare occurrence this late in the season, generally you’ll see it poke out from between peaks for several minutes at a time, but sustained sunlight is a rarity. I spotted an area near the pass where I was going that was still under the sun and went scrambling up a rock gulley (not part of the trail) to get there before the sun left. I managed, and collapsed in the warming light. I discovered another little area not 15 meters higher than the pass that saw sunlight for much longer as it was just a bit higher than the shadow of the peak that blocked it. The view was amazing, I could see for miles back into Montenegro, down into the opposing valley (Ropojana), and even Maja Harapit in Albania. I sat perched there for a few hours enjoying the sunlight, reflecting on my time in the Balkans, and reading a far-fetched and silly but nevertheless entertaining piece of fiction I picked up for the trip. I got back to the site after it was dark, but was invited in for some coffee again, this time it was just the old husband and wife. It was the first time I’d tried milk fresh from a cow (milked that morning, and heated on the wood stove). It was pretty good, but kind of weirded me out as well.

It’s occurred to me that was was “weird” about this whole experience (living abroad, not hiking) was vastly different from what I expected. Generally, I imagine, living abroad is weird, or new, or exciting, because one is living in a new and different location. However, I found the weirdest part not to be the location, but the life that you make around it. It’s surprisingly easy to get acclimated to a new city, and in fact, to feel comfortable, indeed, at home, in this new city in a matter of weeks. The buying of groceries from decrepit old villagers at the open market up the street, the scouring of the entire city to find a single container of cumin, the conversing with the Chinese in Serbian at the Chinese market, the shots of rakija in the kafana while the gypsies behind you play Stani, Stani Ibar Vodo, everything material and real becomes so natural that one barely notices it anymore. What’s really worthy of more thought is the life that you build in this new location, the location itself is far less important. It’s just kind of mind-blowing that the life I’ve made here, the friends I have, my favorite places to hang out and drink, my favorite restaurants, are all so detached from my life back home. The people really important to me in my other life, if you will, will probably never cross paths with the people and places that are important to me here, in this current life.

The depth of it doesn’t really sink in until the old memories start being replaced by the new ones either. Shortly after I left Seattle, most of the memories of the things I did were very clear in my mind. The clarity slowly started melting into obscurity, and the slot for clear memories was once again filled with recent occurrences, things that happened here, not in Seattle. When it really starts to become evident is when the slot for old memories, for vague recollections and feelings, starts being filled with things that happened here, memories from Seattle being pushed farther and farther back. My life when I first moved here seems like a lifetime ago now, so many things have happened in between, people have come and gone, attitudes have changed, the weather has changed. At some point in the near future, the recent memories from here will also fade to obscurity, being replaced by new ones from wherever I’ll be. The point is, memory, just like living (in the sense of being somewhere, and becoming accustomed to its quirks), works the same regardless of where you are.

Then I found $20. (just kidding… I didn’t actually find $20)

This will likely be the last post before leaving Belgrade on November 16th. It’s important to note that while the title of this blog will remain An American Werewolf in Belgrade, the location probably won’t be Belgrade anymore. This blog was created as a means of publishing the ins and outs of living here in Belgrade, but it became really more of a travel log after I realized my potential for making mundane things sound interesting was quite limited in scope, it’s now serving as both a travel log as well as a place of reflection of whatever important things may have happened recently, and I feel like it will probably remain that way for some time.

So there you have it. Keep this guy in your Google Reader or whatever you use to keep track of your blogs (or just check it occasionally, if that’s how you roll) as I’ll continue to update it. But this is me, finishing this chapter of my life and starting a new one, the American Werewolf lurks on.

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Livas through Chania

October 1, 2011

I just returned to Belgrade this morning after three hours of sleep and a weekend on Crete, in Chania, to be specific.

A childhood friend of mine was going to be doing some island hopping alone for a month and convinced me to come down for a few days. I was able to make it happen thanks to a few properly-timed flights and non-striking Greek workforce. I flew via Athens and showed up late afternoon on Wednesday. I made my way into town and met up with Paul and his newfound lady interest, a native of Greece named Anastasia he had met several weeks earlier and continued traveling with in a flood of romantic optimism. We had a fantastic dinner lasting until the wee hours of the morning at a little restaurant tucked away in one of the more scenic alleys of old Chania, invariably a tourist trap, but the foreigners cleared out relatively early, replaced by the later-dining locals. The raki flowed freely, and even once we stopped ordering the waiter would come around and refill us every few minutes, saying “This glass has a hole in it, let me replace it for you.” By the time the restaurant closed we were all sufficiently sloshed. We walked around for a bit and ended up settling in a bar a little outside the old town. I chose not to drink anymore (definitely a good call, in retrospect), and in fact headed home not long after arriving there. I found a nice field of grass on the way home and decided to lie down for a bit. I ended up falling asleep, awakening some time later and finding my way back to our beautiful hotel overlooking the old Venetian port in the center of Chania.

The next day was spent lazily around the center of town. I shudder to think what that place is like during the tourist season, as it was, the old town was almost entirely overrun during the day. We spent a lot of time at a cafe, them playing chess, me coaching their game and invariably getting into trouble for pointing out missed vulnerabilities with a bit of a bias. We found a cool-looking bar in another of the old town’s alleys later on in the night and decided to check it out. It was completely decked out with American dollar bills, license plates, hats, and a plethora of other nicknacks the drunk patrons decided to leave behind. It turns out it caters heavily to the foreign (mostly American military) presence on the island. The music was good, and the people seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the heavy-breasted bartenders kept the drinks coming and mingled with the clientele, mostly regulars. One such tender of the bar, Suzi, originally from London, had been living and working on Crete for eight years.

Anastasia left for Heraklion the next day to catch up with a friend, Paul and I ended up walking way down the coast just to do some exploring. We didn’t find anything particularly spectacular, but there were some good views, and a couple nice beaches. We stopped at one of the beaches on the way back and had a swim. The water was quite pleasant, and the waves were big enough to provide for some adequate entertainment. We finished off the day with some dinner on the town and another visit to the bar from the night before. The vibe was decidedly less cool that night. It was Friday, so it was much more crowded, and it was very noticeably a military bar at this point, in fact, the bartenders were pretty much the only girls in the place. We called it a night at about 0100 being that I had to wake up four hours later for my eye-bleedingly early flight back.

I opted not to take a nap when I got back with hopes of crashing early tonight, but I’m not sure how long I can make it. With the summer winding to a close here, keep an eye out for an upcoming blog post about a hiking trip in the works down in Montenegro.