After six weeks of being away we are losing track of the days. They drift past before we are even aware of time passing us by and we have got to the point we have to ask each other “what day is it?” and “how long have we been away?”
We are starting to feel a little dislocated from the rhythms of everyday life as our ‘previous’ existence with its routines of work, home, and sleep now seems so bizarre as a way of life. Now we live each day, usually, in a different place. Our routines have changed to wake up, pack the bike, find petrol, ride all day, find somewhere to eat and sleep before the pattern is repeated anew every day in a different place. We are starting to feel like gypsies; always on the move unless something stops us. So it is that we write this update from Athens where we have become ‘stuck’ and we feel the irritation of not being able to move on. It has got to the point that Bernard is even threatening to start looking for a job as he is getting so restless. The wait for the lumbering machinery of Visa applications to thread their way through the labyrinth of regulations and the ‘is big problem’ language we have heard so much recently is grinding away at our spirits.
We arrived in Athens on day 33 (2nd September) and nine days later we are still here. During the time so far we have been working on the Visas for Iran, Pakistan and India. To say that I know the route to the embassies would not be an understatement as we have been to them so many times but this is a story for later on as is the fact we also had an official apology from the British Embassy here for their treatment of us!For now let me take you back over the journey and many events from Montenegro through into Serbia to the United Nations controlled area involving Kosovo where the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was so powerfully demonstrated with burnt out house. Then onwards we travel into Macedonia (or Makedonia as it is spelt) before entering Greece and our current location of Athens.
Day 29 (29th August)
We woke up this morning like two school children going on their holidays. The feel of excitement was so powerful at the prospect of moving on. Bernard flew up and down the stairs to pack the bike such was his eagerness to be on the move. Never have I seen him move so quick – apart from to head of problems at border crossings! Before long the whole ‘clan’ had gathered for the big farewells and Sloba or Petrovic Slobadan (to give him his proper full name) our faithful, and very humorous waiter / manager / runner of the whole hotel wanted copies of the pictures we took on the front step of the hotel which we promised we would email him (and indeed we did so several days later).
It was obvious the hotel staff had been talking about the stickers now covering the back of the bike and so Sloba then appeared with a Serbian (SRB) car sticker which he proudly presented to us as a gift with Alex (the hotel owner) noting that the sticker may well not be well received in Kosovo where “They will poke your eyes out”; due to the sticker and the events which occurred in Kosovo between Serbians and Albanians.
It was a humorous exchange on the steps of the Hotel between the Serbians over this but when Bernard later explained the history of events in Kosovo I could understand his reticence about the sticker being on the bike going into Kosovo – which is controlled by fully armed United Nations troops. He took the same stance with the sticker from Croatia. The problem was the staff wanted the sticker putting on before we left and so it would have been impolite to refuse and so we – eventually – left the hotel complete with not only the Serbian (SRB) sticker but also a Montenegrin (MNE) for the trip into Kosovo! If you know Balkan history you will realise that Montenegro is predominantly Serbian before its peaceful transition to independence in 2006 thus we were doubly defined by the stickers! We kept our fingers crossed about this and Bernard – much later on – did check whether the stickers would cause us any problems when we met the French troops on the border.
The road from the hotel soon had us in the mountains as we passed through gorges where the edge of the road defined sheer drops on one side (our side!) which wound their way down through the country. Tunnel after tunnel had been blasted through the mountains themselves and they came thick and fast, short and long, cold and warm as we wound our way ever higher into the mountains.
Soon we arrived at the Montenegrin border and the inevitable game of ‘where are you going, where have you come from (Montenegro?) passports and papers’ was to be played out for the 21st time in our short trip. Even though we actually have this down to a fine art by now Bernard still gets stressed about borders as he seems to think there will be more problems than we have, so far, encountered. He seems to go into a different mental mode when borders appear, switching into a more cautious frame of mind. He sounds happy and confident but I can sense the anxiety whenever borders appear. He smiles and laughs but the anxiety is there although masked. He has talked about this and thinks it may be the ‘natural’ response to uniforms and guns which – he believes – many people probably experience when they are not used to seeing 20 year old people clutching automatic machine pistols which can put several hundred bullets out in the blink of an eye. He does cover the anxiety very well when he is dealing with the borders but I can hear it and sense it!
At this border the guards all came over to the bike and the whole border crossing came to a stop as they left other cars and trucks to come and look and there was an exchange which I heard through the intercom. The border guards went to the back of the bike and lo-and-behold all came back smiling due to the SRB and MNE stickers (proudly) displayed! Bernard waxed lyrically about how fantastic our journey through Montenegro had been and how lovely all the people we had met were and soon we were all friends and there was much ‘glad-handing’ as Bernard calls it (shaking hands).
Bernard described how they all starting fiddling with all the switches on the bike like school children. We have come across this behaviour before and he now minimises the problems by leaving the bike in gear and using the engine ‘kill switch’. This means they can blow the horn, turn the indicators on, and flash the lights but not start the engine! It stills seems strange to me that grown men should be like this but I suppose ‘boys will be boys’ in whatever country and no matter what the language!
I could hear several Serbians talking and then Bernard indicated we would have to get off the bike as there was a disagreement between some of the officials and people around us. It seems all of them wanted to just wave us through while one insisted on us getting off the bike. Up to this point nobody realised I was blind but Bernard did his usual mimic signs (point to eyes and cover them with hands and then wave ‘No sight’) to let them know I was blind and one of the ‘plain clothes’ officials seemed to understand immediately and fired off a string of language at which they all moved back to let me climb off; they were all right beside the bike. Fortunately they all moved and we avoided an International incident and I did not kick anybody and get arrested for assaulting a Montenegrin border guard!
The long cane was duly popped and the distinctive ‘click, click, click, click’ was heard as I started to walk towards the office where the guard was indicating. Within seconds the guard said “No, No, just you!” and Bernard stopped. I could tell Bernard was not happy at leaving me but there was no choice in the matter according to the body language of ‘Mr Stroppy’ as we later called him. While I was guided back to the bike and Bernard placed my hand on the back box I was told there was a queue at the office and he would be gone for a little. Ever attentive to me being left he still reassured me he would be able to see me the whole and would come back instantly if there was a problem. The funny thing is I do not worry at all about events like this but he does all the time. The way I look at it is that I am at an International Border crossing; what could happen? He doesn’t look at it in this way and worries about me constantly (apart from when we are on the bike itself where he has control over what is occurring). He was reluctant to leave me but one of the plain clothes officials indicated to him he would stay with me and waved Bernard off to do the paperwork and with a final “I can see you the whole time” Bernard disappeared to do the paperwork.
Within seconds a voice said “You from England?” and I turned towards the voice and said “yes” and the voice came back with a soft whistle and a “You have come long way!” I felt him approach and he very gently got hold of my hand and guide it onto the back box before saying “must go, you stay here, safe for you here” I smiled and thanked him to the sounds of his disappearing footsteps. It was so sweet of him and so gentle. This simple action also meant that he had some awareness of being blind in an open space and so giving me a physical object to locate myself. Either he knew due to experience or he had watched Bernard do the same thing? I’ll never know. The only thing I knew was that he was very gentle and this gentleness has been demonstrated so many times in similar situations over the 21 crossings so far. People have been the same no matter where we have been; considerate and kind.
As I standing wondering about people’s kindness I heard two motorcycles pull up and Bernard told me when he arrived back after completing the paperwork that they were two Swiss riders on KTM motorcycles. He laughingly told me they had more equipment each for their few weeks away (so they told him) than we had for the whole journey. Once again it seems the border guards were all over the bikes and they even started them up and revved the engines like enthusiastic bike racers on the start line of a grand prix. They got on and off the bikes and took pictures of each other with their mobile phones and the two Swiss riders enthusiastically joined in and I could hear the hearty sounds of them all laughing and joking with each other. Boys and toys! As always when the Swiss riders realised we were doing the ‘big one’ (as they called it) they came over and took multiple pictures of Bernard and myself with the bike. The whole time at the border was a really interesting insight into men and their attitude to machines and all things mechanical. But I will always remember the kindness and gentleness of the short-sleeved man who placed my hand on the back of the bike; it spoke volumes and was louder than any bike engine.
As we rode off from the border of Montenegro Bernard and wondered about the next check point (as he always does) I told him about this gentle act and before he had any time to respond we arrived at the Serbian border with a string of traffic being checked one vehicle at a time. There were police and army every where and there was a significant presence on the road all around us. As we edged forwards on the bike the whole scene was described to me with a particular emphasis on the amount of ‘hardware’ as he calls the massed weaponry. Ten minutes later we arrived at the front and the same merry-go-round of questions are asked and answered. This time we were waved to the side and told to get off the bike and so we pulled over and the whole ‘Cathy getting off the bike’ was performed for the twenty or thirty uniforms standing around waiting for something to happen. Our passports had already disappeared with the person who told us to pull over and by the time we got off the bike, the loud groan of Bernard pulling it onto the stand had occurred we had our passports back and were waved through. As we rode off from the check point – after entertaining the whole armed populace with getting on the bike – Bernard muttered about “Lot of effort for nothing, wouldn’t you think they would have told us just to stay on the bike rather than all that effort (mutter, mutter, mutter)”. But soon he forgot all about this as we rode into Serbia and he got excited about entering a new country as he always does.
The roads were rougher than we anticipated and for long periods Bernard would be quiet as the tarmac would have channels dug into it which he explained would ‘trap’ the front wheel in it and the bike would veer to one side – a bit like the front wheel getting stuck in a tram line was the way he explained it. So it was that once he explained the road conditions I would know that he would go quiet for periods as he concentrated on keeping the bike on the safest section of road he could see in front.
Within a very short period Bernard pulled up and explained that the road split into two and the maps did not indicate the – obviously – new bridge across the river and gorge on our right which veered off somewhere. The road stretched ahead of us and there was another checkpoint which was manned by the Serbian police and above which flew the distinctive Serbian flag. Which way? We decided to keep going straight as the only explanation we could think of was that beyond this check point was the United Nations controlled region of Kosovo and, as such, we would be entering a ‘no-man’s land’ between this disputed region which led to the United Nations launching air strikes against Belgrade (The Capital of Serbia as it is now) in 199____. The bike moved forward slowly as Bernard prepared himself for another crossing (the third in under an hour). The two policemen on the border smiled as we pulled up and asked for our passports and within seconds they waved us through and Bernard waved back at them again as we pulled away.
Thus we entered a strange area as there was not a single car on the road. There was nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not a person nor animal could Bernard see.
As we rode through this twilight world Bernard talked about some of the things he knew and had seen about this area which has seen so much death, destruction and relocation of people which characterised the tragic conflict with the disintegration of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. The euphemism ‘ethnic cleansing’ was coined to encapsulate this disintegration of the country which saw Croatians, Bosnians, Serbians and Albanians all resurrecting hatred and seeking to push their neighbours out of ‘their land’. It has been hard to reconcile our experiences of all these people’s kindness and this period of their history. We have met all these people on our journey and we have pondered about the same event occurring in England with the example of the Scots, Irish, Welsh and English people all killing each other (as they did historically long ago) but in a contemporary time-frame; we cannot imagine it. Perhaps it is because we are just two people and, like most people in the world, we just want to wander through our lives peacefully and die of old age in our beds surrounded by our loved ones.
Perhaps it is just us and the way we view the world and we make no apologies if this approach or view sounds naive and simplistic. We are both guilty as charged but it is the way we want to be. In the world of ‘ordinary people’ it is probably the same everywhere.
Soon we entered concrete road blocks designed to make you zigzag between them and they became increasingly closer together to slow down your progress as you approached the heavily fortified and razor wired United Nations area which defined the crossing into Kosovo. Riding the bike at barely walking pace Bernard negotiated the various barriers and we went down a fairly steep concrete trench in the road which acted as the final main barrier to the crossing (designed to really, really slow down any vehicles approaching). Waved down by the Kosovo police Bernard (in his usually jovial English voice) said “Well hello there!” and it was immediately apparent she did not speak English and within seconds we were joined by a United Nations Officer who smiled and asked us where were going “Athens” was Bernard’s reply and he explained that we would need a special pass to enter Kosovo and he told us to pull over past the barriers and wait while he took our passports and explained it would only take a few minutes to sort out.
We pulled under the covers under the full view of machine gun posts and climbed off the bike. As we were unzipping jackets and settling down to wait a armoured troop carrier came thundering up the road followed by two white UN four-by-four vehicles which all stopped in a cloud of dust. Soldiers leapt out from everywhere and set up a cordon around the crossing while photographers appeared from one of the white UN vehicles. Snap, snap, snap and the sounds of French could he heard all around me and Bernard described a tall, very handsome and very senior French officer striding towards us as we stood waiting. The cameramen with their long lenses snapped everything in sight (including ourselves) and within seconds the officer was in front of us shaking our hands and introducing himself in a flurry of words ending with “Do you need anything at all?” We thanked him and let him know that we were fine and had everything we needed but he went on “The French camp is completely at your disposal and if you require anything, water, food, anything at all please let us know.” Snap, snap, snap could be heard the whole time as this exchange occurred.
Bernard did ask whether the SRB and MNE stickers would present us with any problems and he said the answer would be no as “Foreigners nobody bother about, now if you were Serbian or Albanian then it might be a problem, but for you no”. We thanked him for his kind offer of assistance and he wished us well on our journey before disappearing surrounded by the ‘click, click, click’ of the photographers as we stood waiting for our pass.
One of the aides approached and talked about what we were doing and where we were heading and she seemed genuinely impressed with the fact we had come this far on the bike. She clutched her own camera in her hand and asked if we minded if she took some photographs of us by the bike which she duly did. Thanking us she went off following behind the first French Officer.
We stood and waited and then Bernard’s eyes lit up – a photograph of me with the armoured personnel carrier perhaps?He approached one of the troops standing guard at the carrier and indicated would it be ok to take a photo and got the thumbs up from the soldier. We walked over to the troop carrier and Bernard was about to take the photograph when the soldier indicated he would take one of both of us and if we wanted to get into the vehicle it would be fine. So it is, for one of the few pictures, Bernard actually appears in a photo! By the time we had taken the picture our special passes were ready and we waved our thanks to the on-guard soldier and the other UN staff as we set off into Kosovo through the myriad of concrete road blocks and razor wire emplacements on the road.
Much like the entry to the border, the outward journey was surreal as we passed through a land where nothing moved. Not a single vehicle nor person was about. As we rounded one bend there was a whole squad of soldiers sitting in the shade and we both waved to them as we passed and the whole squad waved back as we rounded the bend and disappeared up the road. The road itself was littered with tunnel after tunnel and all of them were unlit which made it interesting for Bernard. We would go from the bright sunlight into the darkest night and the bike would slow down as he wears react-o-lite sunglasses and so would end up in the gloom actually wearing sunglasses until they could adjust; which took about 10 seconds each time.
We entered one tunnel and a startled exclamation came through my helmet (he actually said “SHIT”) as the bike was violently wrenched to the side as the tunnel suddenly filled with a roaring sound. It was that quick. The blink of an eye. Then we were out into the light and Bernard explained what happened.Bernard “Honestly I nearly died and I thought my heart would stop! We entered the tunnel and all was fine and then suddenly in the darkness two men are kneeling in the middle of the road facing me. In the pitch black of the tunnel they were burning white lines on the road with no light but the blaze of the tool they were using; which they must have only turned on a fraction before I nearly ran them over. No warning signs, no high visibility jackets with nice reflective stripes, nothing.
Health and safety has obviously not reached the Kosovo Road Works Department as of August 2008! Talk about a near miss. Two Kosovo mothers must have been saying their prayers for their sons that day!”So it was that we survived and lived to fight another day! From Bernard’s reactions it was obvious it was close, very close.The houses all through this part of Kosovo flew the Serbian flag; it was draped over every building and was flown from every telegraph pole and electrical pylon. It was everywhere. As the bike slowed down I knew from the descriptions that we were entering another UN checkpoint. We slowed to walking pace and started to weave gently through the various obstacles designed to stop cars crashing through the checkpoints. Bernard told me the check point was manned by the Swiss Army contingent who watched from heavily protected watch towers as we passed underneath their position only to be waved through as they recognised we were not local! From this point onwards all the flags were Kosovo and UN.
Then I realised from my understanding of our position that the UN position was probably to protect the Serbian community as they had moved from majority to minority at the stroke of a pen on a map. From being in the driving seat when the troubles and ethnic cleansing began now they have been reduced to back seats in the move onwards for the majority of Kosovo’s towards their desired destination – some form of link or absorption into Albania. This feeling was reinforced as we moved away from the UN checkpoints and all the houses flew the Albanian flag. From this point onwards this was the only flag flying. Not another Serbian flag could be seen, anywhere at any point.The road south grew worse and worse and the bike started to weave across the road as Bernard always searched for the best surface and the movements were hypnotic in their way as we swayed from left to right. I realised the road was pretty bad as long silences from Bernard would appear or, in the middle of describing something, Bernard would just stop and I would wait until he worked out where to put the bike on the road. Our speeds never got above 40 miles per hour. For long stretches we would go even slower.
My lasting impression of this landscape was of the burned out homes which littered the environment. Of the homes where bull-dozers had pushed roofs off leaving families without somewhere to live, forcing them to leave where they had lived for generations. Of the human misery which must have surrounded such an act that it is so hard to imagine for me.
I tried to put myself in this position where, one day, people (and yes, they are people like you and I) would come and tell me I had to leave my home right now as I was no longer welcome. Then my local neighbours – whom I have known all my life – would bring in a bull-dozer and put the end against my roof and push the whole thing off. I couldn’t shake the image of the Serbians I had met on our travels and the kindness we had experienced. It was hard to put the two events together in my head. But then again, and as we have said earlier, we are two innocents in such matters and may be embarrassingly naive for our years.
The images of shattered buildings full of the signs of shell and bullet holes are a powerful reminder of people’s inhumanity to their fellow beings who only want the same basics as we do; freedom and a sense of security for our families. I suppose like a phoenix rising from the ashes the consolation (if there is any consolation for these people) is that reconstruction is everywhere. Houses have been built right next to the shattered homes; which have been left standing and are precisely as they were when events unfolded. They seem to act as permanent reminder of how quickly and how horribly things can go wrong between peoples who have a shared history.
We passed through miles and miles of this landscape and then I realised that none of the Serbian area where we first crossed the border seemed to show these ravages and I questioned Bernard about his descriptions at that point in the day. He assured me he was telling me things as they showed them to him on the road and he missed nothing out (which is what I have told him to do on our journey) that he registered. Thus all the damage seemed to exist beyond the ‘Serbian’ area. It seemed to confirm the ‘They will poke your eyes out with that badge’ jokes made as we left Montenegro.
Closer and closer to Pristina we came and there were signs of construction everywhere and all the corners of the world seem to have a presence in terms of multi-national companies ‘all helping’ the Kosovo people. The flags of Germany, France, Italy, America, Switzerland and Ireland flew around towns and villages as we covered the mileage at this reduced pace. Convoy after convey of UN military vehicles passed us going the opposite way and we thought it likely they were heading back to base for the night after being on patrol.
The road into Pristina was a nightmare as some serious road works was going on and the hard core under-belly of the road was the only surface available to us. The cracking and crunching of our tyres and the shifting, twitching rear of the bike made it a very un-nerving experience. The road to Pristina is under-going serious widening and it seems that there will be three lanes going in and out of the ‘capital’ as they seek to link to Macedonia; which has a well linked road network to Greece. Thus, in time, Kosovo will be linked downwards through this region until time passes and the wounds of the 1990’s heal to whatever degree it is possible. For now it appears the Kosovo’s are looking south rather than North for their development over time.
After a while it was time to start looking for our pillow for the night and before long a hotel appeared on our side of the road works and we crunched across the three lanes of hard core to exit right. I could tell Bernard was relieved for the day to be over as it had been hard, hard work on the bike today due to the road conditions. Climbing off the bike we clumped up the stairs for Bernard to start learning Kosovon!
The hotel looked relatively modern and on enquiring (in English) if a room was to be had he was met with German. Not to be outdone he then changed to French; only to be met with German again. Going back to English he tried once again and, yes, you’re ahead of me, German again. Now the only things Bernard knows in German is counting and ordering a beer. He can say “I speak German very slowly” but he avoids using this. He also can say “Please” and “Thank you” when he is ordering his beer but that’s it. Nothing more. So he was, once again, reduced to pantomiming the fact we wanted to sleep which involves two hands, palms together beside his face complete (if he is really struggling) with loud snoring sounds!
It seems the receptionist was extremely puzzled by Bernard’s response but sure enough he quoted “Tenty Euro” which we assumed was German for twenty and our smile indicated we’d have it. Bernard loves a bargain and he whistled a happy tune as we made our way up to the third floor; “it always seems to be the third floor” was his only grumble as it meant multiple trips up and down the stairs at the end of a hard day. After multiple trips up and down everything was in our room and we went down to the reception area to find something to eat and this was soon accomplished. As always the environment was described to me and it seems I was the only woman in the building which seemed strange as we sat and ate our food. Not giving it a further thought we retired for the night and lights went out at 9pm as Bernard and I were too tired to even write our journal of the day.
Day 30 (30th August)
In the early hours it started to dawn on me that this ‘hotel’ had more going on than we have anticipated! We had noticed when we went to bed so early that there was a television on in one of the rooms at a seriously loud volume but, once again, we thought nothing of it (apart from the person must have a hearing problem!) There was lots of laughing and giggling around the rooms but, again, we took no notice really. As always, Bernard was asleep within minutes while I drifted for some time. Eventually the TV stopped and I fell asleep myself.
At midnight we were both woken up by loud voices and lots of laughing in the corridor and adjoining rooms. After a lot of grumbling about being woken up Bernard went hunting for his ear plugs within the mountain of gear in the room. After much rustling and thumping as he undid various bags and locks he reappeared and sank gratefully back into bed, inserted his ear plugs and within seconds was sound asleep. I lay awake and listened to the sounds going on around the hotel.
It wasn’t long before it started to dawn on me and I put several pieces of information together from the sounds from within the hotel. There was lots of laughing going on. There was the loud TV sounds. Heavy footsteps in the corridor to the room next door. Heavy footsteps to the room on our other side. There seemed to be an awful lot of people coming and going in the corridor, slamming doors and the whole atmosphere was full of noise. Surprising in many ways as, usually, by midnight most hotels have ground to a halt. Not this hotel. Soon other sounds started to penetrate the air. Sounds of passions and the throes of energetic and frantic sex. When I say sounds, I actually mean a wall of sound as it was coming from everywhere. It was all around me. Meanwhile Bernard slept on.
I honestly thought that somebody was having a baby next door such was the level of throaty and bellowing voices coming through the wall. Loud thumps nearly shook me out of bed at one point. I swear my bed moved. And Bernard slept on.
The walls vibrated and I could hear the lamp shades rattling on the bedside tables. I’m not sure if it was passing traffic but the windows did rattle at one point as well and I was seriously concerned for our well being caught in the middle of this earthquake. I remember thinking that I hoped Bernard had strapped the bike down like he usually does on the ferries. As the room rattled and shook from the pounding above our headboard guess what? Bernard slept on.
As the baby was delivered next door to the full crescendo of “Oh Yes, yes, yes” (at least that’s what I think she said) the same think started in the room at the foot of our bed. Again all the noise was female. Not a peep could be hear from the male. Nana, nothing, zip. The only sound which indicated it was not a solo activity was the heavy, heavy sounds of slapping. When I say slapping, I am not talking about a little tap. I mean a CAPITAL SLAP. The sort which would normally have you arrested for assault in most countries. But it seems not in Kosovo where, it appears, it is a normal fun activity for two like-minded people. In some ways it may just be ‘all in a night’s work’ for some people. Who knows?
After it seemed to me that the poor receiver of such slapping must be unconscious the same, even louder, ‘having a baby’ sounds (but again female) spilt the night air with the frantic egging on which indicated that quiet may soon appear and, sure enough, with a final ear splitting scream all went quiet. And Bernard slept on.
Personally at this point I was thinking “Thank god that’s over” but, really, this was only a pit-stop to change drivers. After a short time lighter footsteps left the room at our feet and two female voices started to talk in the corridor. A man’s voice joined the two (walking with heavy footsteps) and an exchange occurred between all three voices. Then the door slammed at our feet and it seems the coffee break was over as the whole scenario was replayed with even throatier exultations from our enthusiastic female performer. Meanwhile Bernard turned over.
It was during this second (or was it third?) birth that I replayed the information of our arrival and the descriptions of the environment. Let me take you through my thoughts.
1. The receptionist seemed completely puzzled that we wanted to sleep.
2. There were no females in the hotel as far as Bernard could see. It was all men.
3. Our room had a king size mirror on the wall beside the bed. It was too big just to brush your hair in!
4. The very large shower had a frame but no doors (think about that one!)
5. The only bedding were sheets and a thin cover. It isn’t that warm in Kosovo!
So it was I reached the conclusion that for 20 Euro we had purchased a room at a Kosovon brothel. It was a startling realisation but, here I was while Bernard was still blissfully unaware.
In the morning – after a fitful night’s sleep would you believe – I told him of my deduction and he just laughed and said “Don’t be daft, it’s just a hotel you are imagining things.” He took off for his morning constitution (meaning a smoke) and when he came back he seemed sheepish and he (unlike the previous tired night) paid attention as he went outside and looked about him.
Every room was empty and remade already – it was only 8am in the morning. Not a single room was closed. Nobody was around and the whole place was deserted. He also managed to find the industrial size condom machine which, according to him, was the size of a dinner table. It was mounted on the stairs right where we had walked past to get to our room. He must have passed it about eight times during the previous evening!
We went to see about breakfast and there was none until at least 11am. It seems that the girls were having a late start this morning after a heavy night and so we had to pay the price and do without breakfast.
All during the day Bernard could not believe he had missed all the events and activities of the night. In some ways I think he was genuinely disappointed he had put the ear plugs in. He denied it off course saying things like “I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you make out and if I’d stayed awake……” at which point his voice would trail off and leave the sentence unfinished.
Our breakfast was at a petrol station just down the road where Bernard tried to convince me that his Kosovon was so good he could read the labels on the bottles of fruit juice after just one day on the country. Needless to say, they were written in English or French and he seemed rather miffed I did not believe him regarding his knowledge of Kosovon!
The road out of Pristina was flanked by scrape yard after scrape yard full of cars of every conceivable shape and size; Bernard commented that the Indians and the Chinese would love this place for the sheer quantity of scrape metal available. You never know, there may be a thriving export business already established!
The road alternated between brand new highway and heavily chopped up. Some sections looked like somebody had got hold of a giant rake and scored the whole road with deep channels which grabbed at the wheels of the bike and sent us in a direction we did not want to go. This went on for hours and hours of muscle wrenching effort from Bernard as he constantly corrected the line of the bike on the road. In the distance the valley was covered with a pall of smoke and on reaching this area the valley was littered with small factories of all ages pushing dense smoke into the air and it was this dome of smoke we had seen from the distance up the valley. Dry dust blows off the edges as no pavements seem to exist and it creates little whirlwinds on the road as we pass by. The valley is long and flat as we approach the mountains and with reaching the end of the valley and the dome of smoke we soon spot the border out of Kosovo.
The guard smiles and takes our passports complete with UN passes and asks “You coming back through?” to which Bernard replied “No, to Athena, Athens” he smiles and stamps our passes, removes them from the passports and waves us through into the twilight world of no-man’s land to the Macedonian border crossing where the fun was about to begin.
A heavily laden KTM bike is stopped in the middle of this ‘nowhere’ land while the rider shuffles papers. As soon as he sees us he reaches for his camera and takes pictures as we trundle slowly past waving to him.
When he asked me for the green card I knew there was going to be some problems. The green card is the insurance bond or certificate issued for the motorcycle and we didn’t have one (our UK insurance company would not issue one). We were fine in the EU with our standard insurance but, much like in Montenegro we would now have to purchase insurance for Macedonia.
I handed him everything. He fingered all the papers and then said “Green card”. Giving him my best “I do not understand” look I just continued pointing to the sheaf of documents in his hand. He starts to get annoyed with me as the queue builds behind me. “Green card” is barked at me once again. I smiled sweetly at him and shrugged my shoulders as if “Language, do not understand!” I knew perfectly well what he wanted but I didn’t have one! He fingered the papers and was getting wound up at Johnny Foreigner. To defuse the situation I pointed to one side and indicated should I pull over there? He nodded and so I edged the bike out of the stream and we both climbed off.
Before long we joined by a female officer who spoke some English and the whole Green Card was replayed again, and again, and again.
“Big problem” she said
“No Green card, no entry”
I put on my most endearing face and asked her how this can be done and we would be so grateful for her help. Truly, truly, grateful.
“No green card, no entry” she repeated.
Time to change tack.
then I pointed down the road “here?”
She thought and said “Not here” and looks adamant.
I’m getting stressed now as everything I have read says I can get it at the border – like in Montenegro.
I try again.
“Must be way to get here? Please, you can help us?” I am nearly on my knees at this point. She waves at us to follow and at this point she realised Cathy was blind and there was a change.
She talks as we walk past the barriers “May be expensive……maybe as much as 50 Euro to do”. Personally I take this to mean we are getting somewhere as we approach a small window. “If is needed, is needed” I reply.
Our documents disappear in through a hatch where a woman tries to read the English V5 Registration document and transfers the details onto a Macedonian set of paperwork. As this happens she says “Very brave journey” I point to Cathy and say “Very brave” pointing to myself I say “Very foolish” she laughs at this and then says “50 Euros” which promptly disappears through the hatch and my papers reappear with a scrape of paper indicating I can enter Macedonia.
We pull through the border after about an hour and enter Macedonia!
It was interesting to listen to Bernard in full diplomatic flow as he wrestled with the situation. It appeared for most of the time they would not let us in but he kept gently worming his way through the obstacles and got us through it and into Macedonia. It was very skilfully done and he seemed to spot every opening in the conversation where a gap appeared to move forward, it really was well done and this write up does not do it justice; we have abbreviated an hour of discussions and negotiations which went on. We’ll come back to this event more fully at a later date. For now we were in Macedonia!
There was immediate change apparent as Bernard described the neatly kept fields which whizzed past on the good roads we passed onto straight away. The roads were quiet and vineyards appeared in neatly kept rows compared to scrap yards and massive rebuilding we’d experienced in Kosovo. The whole country feels cleaner and fresher. We head for the capital Skopje (pronounced Skopia) and the speeds increase until we are whizzing along at 70 mph and the bike stretches and strains as if it enjoys the speed. This is what this bike was build for. Not for 30 mph straining along but eating miles over bog distances and we laugh as the miles are covered. It feels like we are really on the move again. But not for long!
As we approach the capital the roads deteriorate and dust blows across the road and on the outskirts traffic lights appear. We suddenly realise we have not seen traffic lights for some time now. With the traffic lights comes beggars. They descend on us and by-pass every other – local – vehicle like a swarm of flies. Hands outstretched for money; one girl even shoves a baby at Bernard on the front imploring him for money. The baby has the biggest pair of brown eyes Bernard has ever seen and he tells me for a second – just a split second – they looked at each other and connected in some way. He cannot explain it, the only words he can find is “we knew each other” and then it was gone. Just like that. The people become increasingly desperate as the lights change and then we leave them behind as we move off. The next lights the whole scenario is replayed as the bike is surrounded by unkept, lank haired people who all mime various aspects of need. Every set of lights the bike becomes a magnet for the same ethnic people as the previous lights although some do the inevitable washing of car windshields around us and realise we do not need this from them.
The streets are full of people and carpets hang over balconies as we head for a large hotel in the middle of this dust bowl of a city; it really is dusty and beggars seem to be everywhere. We didn’t stay long at the Hotel when they wanted more than in Paris or Rome for a room. We did manage to get the price down a little but it is highly likely they could hear us laughing as we pulled off at their idea they could fleece the tourist!
Before long we hit the motorway network and handed over our one Euro toll (yes, one euro!). Mile after mile we travelled on this road for our one Euro in complete contrast with the French and Italian systems which seem to charge by the metre rather than the kilometre!
After many miles the bike chugged onto reserve and we pulled over onto a service station where we met two Dutch lorry drivers who told us of their trips to England and their love of Liverpool (“so friendly”) and of their dislike of London (“Not friendly and full of traffic”). We laughed about many things including their children and travelling stories before they climbed up into their rigs and with horns honking they set off leaving us to finish our drinks.
Mile after mile of empty motorway was consumed as we thumped further along looking for a hotel in vain. At a further stop hours later I discovered the joys of ‘traditional toilets’ in this part of the world (a hole in the floor inside a cubicle) and I declined the pleasure; at least postponing it for as long as possible! This was to be the pattern at further ‘hunting toilets’ stops made on down the road.
We travelled on the side of a mountain for many miles and would have to stop at temporary traffic lights which counted down telling you how long it would be until they changed. Viaduct after viaduct we passed over with similar lights controlling the single line of traffic allowed over the spanning bridges between mountains. People would get out of their car and light cigarettes and talk to each other as they baked in the sun. The cars with air conditioning sat smugly while everybody else (including us) baked. Eventually we came to a sign for a hotel and Bernard counted down the kilometres to the turn off and then he said, “oooops, I’ve missed the turn off!”
At this point I told him unless he wanted to die then he had better find the turnoff pretty quick! He laughed and I knew he was only joking as we were both very ready to stop for the night. Soon I could feel the bike drifting to the right and round a sharp right hand bend and I knew we coming off the highway. So it was we arrived at the Hotel Vardar complete with tree lined terraces and a cool breeze to sweep away the day’s heat. After a quick meal we collapsed into bed at 10pm.
Day 31 (31st August)
We decided to stay at the hotel for tonight to give us a chance to catch up on emails, cataloguing the photographs taken so far (of which there are hundreds) and catching up on the update for the web. The day was put aside for catching up really.
While sitting on the terrace writing Peter approached us and introduced himself and asked if he could take pictures as he had seen the bike and he was intrigued by the messages on the panniers about “A blind woman, two wheels and 25,000 miles.”
He wanted to take photographs to put on the website he runs for Macedonian motorbikers. He is so happy to meet us and his enthusiasm about the trip exudes from him on all levels. We sit talking about the trip and the fact that petrol is now so dear in Macedonia that the bikers are starting to struggle to pay for it. The petrol is not really very much different than in other countries we have passed through but it is relative of course to income. He reads Superbike magazine and is very aware of the differences in motorcycles available, attitudes and behaviours of UK riders through the magazine (which he gets from Greece as it is not available in his home country). We talk about all things bike and people as he snaps away before leaving and wishing us a happy journey through his country.
We spent the whole day writing and reviewing materials before spending the afternoon sitting on the side of a hill watching a forest fire consume the hills several miles away to the sounds of fire engines screaming past on the roads way below us. The wind swept the fire away from the small town on the mountain opposite and, after several hours everything was brought under control leaving plumes of white smoke trailing high into the air.
Day 32 (1st September)
The next morning we leave and discover the border is only a few kilometres away from the hotel and during this short trip I tried my hand at videoing with hilarious results. We have had problems with using the video for some time now as it fails to record when Bernard tries to run it on the bike (strapped onto the front). My first attempt on this short run ended up showing a beautiful blue sky (and nothing else) while my second attempt showed a very nice view of the tarmac. It seems that my new career as a camera-woman is getting off to a wobbly start! Perhaps this is a ground-breaking career move for me although Bernard thinks that the DDA may well not cover this profession for blind people? You never know, it could be a first perhaps?
We flew through the Greek border with absolutely no problems (with Greece being in the European Union) and the bike hummed happily to the both of us as we flew down the empty motorways at over 80mph with not another car in sight. The wind picked up and started to blow us around and it was really, really windy at one point which meant the speed came down to make the bike more manageable. As a blind person I really do not like the wind. It is the same whether I am walking or on the bike. When I am walking you may have come across the phrase “Blind man’s fog” and it really is when you rely on your hearing so much. On the bike it can be very unsettling as the gusts can blast you several feet sideways before everything comes back under control. This happens time after time after time until you feel a little sea-sick in some ways with the rapid and violent movement of the bike in completely unexpected ways.
In one of the our stops we discover that we have gained another hour somewhere (it’s now five o’clock instead of four) along the way and we are puzzled at this and can only assume Greece is one hour further ahead than Macedonia. Time to reset the watches again and now we are two hours ahead of the UK.
Before I left the UK I bought an ‘automatic atomic talking watch’ from a well known specialist provider and as far as the blurb read the watch automatically sets itself to local time. On the trip I soon discovered that it may well set itself but it is not to local – nor correct – time! The watch uses signals from Germany, USA, Japan and UK time; not a lot of use when in Greece! So I discovered it does automatically reset itself but, unfortunately, not to the correct time for anywhere else apart from these regions!
As we have moved further out of synch with UK time the more I have wrestled with the watch trying to get it to give the right time! In the end I gave up and left it two hours wrong and corrected it mentally whenever I needed the time.
At this stop Bernard found his Greece sticker (GR) and whistled happy tunes as he placed it on the bike along with the MK sticker of Macedonia which he had found earlier in the day. Miles and miles of motorways quickly followed as we hunted our pillow for the night before finding the Hotel Gonatas Beach where a lovely elderly couple greeted us in a strange humorous mixture of Greco-English (ish). Many hilarious misunderstandings and confusions occurred before we settled into our room and when they realised I was blind they could not do enough for us.
Heleni (Helena) told Bernard that her “Heart was hot and heavy” when she realised I could not see and soon she had gone out into the garden and picked some flowers for me (which she did again in the morning as we were leaving). Heleni even gave us a gift of a Bible to take on our travels prior to leaving the next day.
In the evening we went out for something to eat (the hotel did no food) and Heleni directed us to a fish restaurant and the short walk did not prepare us for what was to follow! The small building looked like it was about to close and the owner did not speak a word of English. Bernard indicated we wanted something to eat and was met with a barrage of Greek. As always he tried French and was met with a shrug of the shoulders to indicate no. Much like in Montenegro he waved in the general direction of the kitchen and said “Me and you, in there?” before following the owner into the kitchen. He came back with a plate of small whole fish (including their heads), tomatoes and something else which I could not identify at all. The bread I understood and recognised although like a lot of Greek bread it was extremely tooth testing! We had a glass of wine and a beer before giving up really; the meal even defeated Bernard who will eat virtually anything but he couldn’t work out what was supposed to be done with the fish. When we came to pay the bill, the owner put his hand on his heart and made everything a gift to us.
I was completely taken aback at this gesture. I really was. Bernard went over and shook hands with the owner and made our thanks obvious and he just waved them off in a simple ‘no problem’. As we walked back to the hotel we talked about this situation and Bernard told me he has come across this many times before where people just give you things with no ulterior motive at all. I have never come across this where strangers give you a meal and drinks and then will take no money for them. I fell asleep thinking of values and how kind people can be even when you cannot talk to them.
Day 33 (2nd September)
The next morning we ate everything in site as we were starving after our foray out the night before and we decided that when we left we would go back to the fish restaurant of the previous night and take a picture of the kind owner. Heleni gave me big hug and kissed me three times on the cheek as we were leaving after Bernard went and found her to say goodbye and to thank her. Both Panos (her husband) and she waved us off as we set off back down the road to capture an image of the man who fed us for nothing.
As we pulled up on the bike the cafe was packed with locals all sitting under the shade and Bernard hopped off the bike saying “Back in a minute” as he went to find the owner; later telling me he marched into the kitchen past the staff and waved to him to come outside. Soon we were altogether and – through another local translating – we told him why we had come back and that we would like a picture of him for the story. There was a lot of good humour form the people watching and – we think – a lot of micky-taking as he lined up for the photograph. An elderly man approached us and we worked out he was the owner’s father and wanted a copy of the picture which we promised we would post to the scribbled address which appeared in his hand. We left to many waves clutching a loaf of bread as a gift.
The day was a long one of empty motorways and straight roads with immaculate road surfaces glistening under the sun. It is getting noticeably hotter as we go further south and the water stops are increasing as we keep our fluid levels up sitting in the sun all day.
The Greek drivers – when they do appear – all drive really fast! It is as if anything less than 100mph is not manly. At one point there was a startled yelp from Bernard and a blast of air on my right hand side which I came to know was a motorcycle passing us at 120mph on the inside just as Bernard was about to change lanes.
It was so close. I checked my mirrors and was just about to start moving to the right into the slow lane when a bike flashed passed us. One minute the mirror was clear and then he was past us. I couldn’t believe how fast he was going while undertaking on the inside. At that speed he would have had no chance of missing us at all. He would have smashed into us and taken us both out. Things like this remind me how close things are sometimes and how a fraction of a second can change everything.
As we approach Athens I can feel the traffic building and, unfortunately we arrived about 5 pm just as it was getting ‘interesting’ (as Bernard calls it).
Navigating through the traffic which gives no quarter and is complete pandemonium we arrived at the Hostel we were aiming for and found in the Rough Guide to Europe. The room was much more expensive than we anticipated in a Youth Hostel (64 Euro for the night). It was interesting to note that the person who wrote the rough guide entry for this Hostel cannot in all honesty have stayed there. The write up was completely unlike our experiences and observations. Everything – apart from breathing – seemed to be forbidden. You could not wash your clothes. You could not bring food or drink into your rooms. None of the hot taps worked to stop you washing your clothes. If you wanted to have your clothes washed a very expensive laundry service was available (1Euro 50 cents for example to have a pair of knickers, would you believe – ironed).But we were tired and we needed somewhere to start in Athens.
Again we ended up on the upper floors which meant Bernard slumping up and down the stairs with all the gear. The narrow road outside was covered with graffiti claiming that the Basque separatists were all heroes and so we decided to remove anything not nailed to the bike. By the time this was done there was a pool of sweat named Bernard standing waiting for the shower!
We scrapped the sweat off and headed downstairs to the bar where at least we could get a Pizza before going to bed. The bar was full of Australians and Americans (all young and nearly dressed according to Bernard) and they all seemed to be loudly proclaiming their knowledge of the world as they step from plane to plane and city to city in their gap years. Oh the wonders of youth when we all know so much about the world! We really did feel OLD in the bar and, in some ways, we could have been their grandparents never mind their parents. After we had a drink and demolished the (bought in from outside) Pizza we beat a hasty retreat to our room and fell asleep to the sounds of Athens traffic deep into the night.
Day 34 (3rd September)
We set off to begin our embassy trail today with Pakistan and ended up bashing our way through compete mayhem within the Athens traffic to the other side of the city only for the locals to tell us there are “no embassies here.” So off we went again back in exactly the same route but reversing everything as Greek drivers blast their horns at everything in sight; at us quite a lot it seems.
The cars race from lights to lights and it is really interesting to listen to Bernard’s description of what is going on around us. Motorbikes weave between the traffic at speed with inches to spare between themselves and the buses, cars and trucks and there is a grudging admiration from Bernard at their skill at navigating through narrow gaps. He does think they are all suicidal though and based on his descriptions it is no wonder Greece has such a high accident rate; higher than anywhere else in the EU according too the statistics. Until we can re-check the address of the Pakistan embassy we decide to head for the Iranian and we reach the road it is supposed to be located in and ask several people about it. “No embassy here” seems to be the common response but we walk the district.
There were, she was right, no embassies here APART from the Iranian embassy about a hundred yards way. In all fairness it must have been really hard for them to see the Iranian Embassy with the huge flag flying. The sprouting antennae and massive satellite dishes were all so easy to miss along with the big steel gates and wall around the compound!After spending about two hours eventually getting here, it was just our luck for it to be closed but we pushed the buzzer anyway and were, eventually, greeted with Arabic. In his best English voice (which he reserves for times like this) Bernard asked about Visas and before long an official appeared at the gate and we talked though the bars. “You need invite to enter Iran” was his most common answer to everything we asked. No matter what variation we took around Visa questions he would reply “You need invite to enter Iran”. We did wonder if this was taught at the Iranian Diplomatic school for dealing with foolish English People. In effect, we got nowhere in this conversation and it was this event which led us to seek the assistance of an Iranian ‘fixer’ which we will tell you about later.
We arrived back at the hostel deflated in many ways as the day had not been a resounding success on any level. The traffic was awful, the Pakistan embassy had gone AWOL It wasn’t exactly a wonderful day so far. But much like other bad days we retired to the hostel to plan our next assault on the kingdom of Visa hunting. It was also apparent we may have to stay in Athens for longer than anticipated and neither of us were enamoured with our current accommodation so we would have to move somewhere else as well.
You have to understand that as a blind person the layout of where we are staying is important in order for me to be independent.
When we signed into the hostel we asked if the rooms had en-suite and we were told yes ‘of course’. en-suite apart from the toilet of course.
Yes there is a sink (with no hot water) and a shower (with no holder for the shower head so you have to hold it) but no toilet. The toilet is down the corridor on the other side (by a set of down stairs!) Therefore this would mean I would need Bernard’s assistance to get to the toilet (of which there was one at this location). Now Bernard is a lovely patient person and he takes everything in his stride but waking him at 2am in the morning to guide me to the toilet would stretch our relationship just a tad – perhaps!
So it was we set off walking and looking for other accommodation in the area (which is fairly central) and ended up at a street bar as we decided what to do and talked through options. The bar itself is called The Red Indian and the owner is a Greek with a serious affinity with all things ‘American and American Indian’. He drives a bright red jeep, wears fringed clothes, beads, bangles and cowboy hat as he sits on the pavement outside his cafe. After a couple of drinks we walked to several hotels to check prices and they varied considerably until we found our eventual new home The City Plaza Hotel where we negotiated with the manager (saving 40 Euro a night on the advertised prices) for a double room which was really en-suite; it even had hot water and a proper shower! We would have to repack the bike for the next day and move all of three blocks; all for only a little more than we were paying at the hostel. At least this was one problem solved for the time being.
Our walk back to the hostel meant we would pass the Red Indian and what can I say? We stopped for a celebratory drink with our Stetson wearing friend who even sent us over a complimentary round of drinks. By the time we left the street tables Bernard was, shall I say, somewhat unsteady on his feet. It wasn’t that he had drank a lot (about four bottles of beer across the afternoon) but he had not eaten anything so far in the day and it was quite funny as he denied being inebriated. He strenuously denied it as we weaved our way back to the hostel. The weaving motion, he tried to convince me, was caused by the number of obstacles in our way as we walked the short blocks to our destination. He had greater difficulty explaining away the slurred voice but give him his due he did try; without succeeding!
It was even funnier when we got back to the hostel and he was asked for his passport (which most hotels keep when you register with them). He fumbled about on the floor looking in his backpack mumbling “It’s in here somewhere” as the receptionist waited patiently for him to produce it. With a flurry and a swirl, much like magician according to the receptionist, he produced the passport and it was returned to the safe until we left the hostel.
Once we made the room – in one piece – he lay down and promptly fell asleep for two hours! On waking up he said “it’s the heat, it knocked me out” only for this statement to be met with my laughter and no matter what I said he denied Mr Heineken being the cause of anything. He still denies it to this day although I know (as does he really despite his loud protestations).
Day 35 (4th September)
The big move from ‘nearly en-suite’ to ‘completely en-suite’ went without a hitch even on a fully loaded bike. It actually took longer to pack the bike than to ride the few blocks to the Hotel. As we pull up amongst the Greek cars I heard a motorcycle pull up close beside us and a voice said “How do you find driving in Athens?” Bernard’s reply consisted of three words “Madness, absolutely madness!” The sound of laughter came across the gap between the two bikes and then I realised the voice belonged to the Red Indian owner of the day before and he then identified himself to me and said “You going all around the world?” and Bernard confirmed the fact. “A dream of mine to do such a thing, a real dream” and the lights changed and we parted with Bernard shouting “see you later” as we set off.
After the paucity of the hostel, the hotel seemed plush by comparison even though its star rating was only three. The receptionist and all the hotel staff are all lovely and so helpful once we arrived. The roof garden has the most fantastic view of the Acropolis and the full panoramic view was sifted through later on so that I could appreciate the site across the city. This is the city where over half the Greek population of the whole country are situated. The population of Greece is approximately 11 million and the city houses 6 million of them and the view from the roof garden encompasses a large proportion of them.
Much like previous places we have stopped we ended up on the fifth floor but at least Bernard now had a lift to fill up with bike equipment to the fifth floor! The day was lost to the move really and the checking of emails now that we have a permanent Wi-Fi connection! A lovely email and birthday E-card arrived from my sister for my impending birthday tomorrow and our facilities now mean that I am, once again, independent and can move around our rooms to my heart’s content. It feels good to have this small act of freedom back again.
Day 36 (5th September) MY Birthday!
I woke up to “Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you………” and Bernard said “It’s not every woman who gets taken to Athens for their birthday is it?” I did convince him to stand still long enough for me to hit him which he obligingly did!
We had decided the night before that we would visit the British Embassy today to seek some advice and assistance in terms of our applications to the Pakistani, Iranian and Indian embassies and so we plugged the address into the sat nav and set off into the traffic. After traversing Athens and being overtaken by virtually everything on the road we arrived at the destination only to find that the address was a block of flats! On asking everybody around and passing by we came across the inevitable “No Embassies here” and I could feel Bernard getting really, really frustrated at this second attempt to find an embassy – any embassy. It was more the traffic which was wearing him down as it seems to be like London but travelling at three times the speed and with no real rules that he can work out. Even red traffic lights seem to be only vaguely observed. Pedestrians just saunter out into the road like lemmings seeking their own obliteration in collective acts of suicide. As soon as the lights do change people start beeping their horns for everybody to get moving. It is like London, but much, much worse. It is like Rome and Paris all rolled into one and it is wearing Bernard out and he is getting shorter tempered about the whole thing.
Now it seems, after gentle prodding, that there are several addresses which all share the road name. Asking innocent questions around the concept of any form of Greek postcode he went very quiet and mumbled something. Eventually he admitted he had not used the post code. Once he sheepishly put the post code into the system it showed the British Embassy was on the other side of town – in the opposite direction and to the north of the hotel; we were in the south of the city. In order to get to the Embassy we would have to pass the Hotel! In the end I convinced him that we should go back to the hotel and get a taxi but I broached it cautiously. He acquiesced so easily that I knew he had had enough of driving in Athens and it was a relief for the both of us when we were sat in an air conditioned taxi an hour later heading for the British Embassy. On arrival then the fun really began on this, my birthday.
The taxi could not stop by the embassy due to the massive concrete blocks barring the road. The security around the embassy compound was very tight and armed Greek police patrolled the road. The embassy itself is behind large steel electronic gates with high fences topping tall concrete walls. Nothing gets in or gets out without severe scrutiny. It’s not surprising really when you think of the nature of Britain’s foreign policy regarding such countries as Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan!
Eventually we did get into the embassy and got as far as the Greek security desk. At this point everything went from bad to worse. Now remember it has taken some effort to even get here. We sweltered across the city to the wrong address and then sweltered back across the city in 38 degrees in heavy traffic on a heavy bike before taking a taxi.All to get stopped at the security desk and nobody willing to even talk to us. Phone calls went up to embassy staff on two occasions and we listened as conversations occurred in Greek and on both occasions people refused to even talk to us. I could feel Bernard tightening beside me as he worked on the contents of what was going on beside us. He had warned me the Embassy would probably be little us as we were just two people in Athens but I thought they would help. In the end we were told nobody was willing to talk to us and that the embassy was there “For lost passports or if you lost your wallet”. At this point Bernard’s voice tightened and I heard him say “You mean this massive building is only for lost wallets or lost passports?” I think the heavy sarcasm was lost on the female Greek security guard! She innocently replied “yes” before adding “We do visa as well” to which Bernard replied as quick as a flash “We do not need Visas we have passports!” before adding; “You mean to say nobody at the BRITISH embassy will talk to two BRITISH passport holders about travel advice EVEN THOUGH your web site says this is a thing you will do on REQUEST?” A further phone call (in Greek again) ensured and she apologised after hanging up but again repeated that nobody would even come to talk to us. At this point Bernard asked for the British Ambassador’s email address to complain and this was refused.
I must admit I was really, really puzzled at this outcome as I had, naively it seems, always thought that British Embassies are there to give help and assistance on a range of things to passport holders. As we sat outside after being shown the door and Bernard lit cigarette after cigarette in order to calm down we talked about it.
“Useless, absolutely bloody useless unless you are goddam famous” he fumed as he puffed on cigarettes. “If we were a name we wouldn’t be treated like this…….. I bloody pay for that building…………..and the people in it………….. I can’t believe they would do this to you….. I’m bloody furious even though I knew they would not help before we even walked in.” I sat in stunned silence at what had happened as I pictured the steam pouring out of his ears.
Eventually he calmed down and we thought our way through it. “Me and you then love, just me and you, just like we always knew. No help, no backup from anybody but people we can trust”.
So it was that we walked away from the embassy and worked out how to get back to the hotel using the metro system (underground) and on arriving back at the hotel a stinging email was issued to Bernard using his strongest diplomatic language expressing ‘outrage’ at our treatment. The rest of the day was spent miserably in many way as everything has gone wrong and even the birthday meal at the hotel was expensive and poor and I didn’t enjoy the it at all. The messages from home cheered me up about my birthday and Bernard did try so hard to cheer me up in the evening but today was not a good day on many levels.
Day 37 (6th September)
I woke up to “Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you……” I had a whole sense of déjà vue. If you have ever seen the film “Ground Hog Day” you will know what I mean where the days keep replaying and replaying until the desired outcome is achieved. So it was with Bernard who said that “Today is your birthday, or tomorrow, or the next day until you have a nice day!” I must admit sometimes he really does make me laugh. Actually he makes me laugh such a lot and he can be very sweet at times like this and so began our concerted assault on Visa-land.
We spent the whole day hunting and searching for companies and routes through Iran, Pakistan and India. Hours and hours we spent reading regulations and every piece of advice on the internet that we could find. Most of the day disappeared in this way. We contacted a company in Iran who were recommended by other over-land motorcyclists as being able to get the job done. We had six photographs done to cover all the Visas at a local photographic shop. We retired to the roof garden with sore eyes and sore throats (Bernard from screen reading) and sore heads (Me from listening and concentrating all day raising ‘what if’ questions). But the evening was lovely and made up for all the disappointments of the previous day. I feel much better today and have more of a sense of what we are doing and how we are going to tackle the challenges ahead. It was a good day but very, very tiring.
Day 38 (7th September)
Little did we know when we woke up this morning how long we were going to spend trying to pay the Iranian company for the visa application process. Needless to say it wasn’t easy! There was a long and torturous financial route we had to follow involving transfers through British third parties in order to circumvent American embargoes on dealing with anything Iranian! We tried transferring the 125 Euro fee through electronic means and after several hours of problems we gave up. Over to plan B.
The other option was for us to pay the fee directly to the Iranian agent’s bank; in Turkey! So it was that we set off to find somewhere we could transfer the money to the Bank in Istanbul!
In Greece there are many International Money Gram shops and these transfer money between people all over the world. Eventually we had to get the underground through Athens to find one who could perform this function. I managed to convince Bernard that one of the agents would be by one of the stations just down the line and he was extremely sceptical about “Mrs Bloody Psychic” but, guess what? Just outside the station called Omonia on the Greek underground we found a Money Gram shop who could do the transfer to the bank in Turkey.
We arrived (with Bernard a little incredulous at how I could have guessed the location in this way) filled out the forms and handed over our money and we thought thank god for that, job done only to have our victory celebration shattered with the next word.
“Passports” came over the desk to which Bernard responded
The request was repeated “Passports please, no can do without passports”.
A loud sigh came from the man next to me as he said “They’re in the hotel”.
“Ahh, sorry, need passports before can do”.
“Bloody hell” was the not so nice response from Bernard as we realised we would have to go all the way back across the city on the underground and then come all the way back!
We set off not believing our run of errors and mistakes while ruefully admitting to each other that things have got to start going right for us soon! Over an hour later we are back at the shop clutching Bernard’s passport. Money, forms and passport disappear over the desk and we are told to wait while ‘authorisation’ for the transfer comes through; to stop money laundering operations. We walk a short way to a coffee shop where we anxiously wait until eventually we return to be told it will take five days to transfer the money. Five days? Where does the money go we wondered? After all we complain in England when it takes three days to press a button but five did seem a little excessive. As we have found however in the time we have been away, there is little we can do. We just have to sit and wait it out. If nothing else we are getting used to sitting and waiting while we are in Athens!
At least we know the money is on the way and so we decided to head off to the defining image of Greece and Athens; follow this link if you would like some background on the sacred rock of the Acropolis!
People come from all over the world to stand on the top of the sacred rock and view the buildings which are left at the location. As a blind person I found the whole thing disappointing really. You cannot touch anything and even if you could touch all you would feel would be stone pillars. There is only so much you can extract from a stone pillar with your fingers. In many ways, one stone pillar feels very much like any stone pillar unless there is something highly distinctive about the masonry or stonework involved.
It wasn’t helped by the fact that the whole site is undergoing development and is covered with scaffolding which spoiled the picture I was building in my head. It may well be that, unlike some monuments to the past, that the Acropolis is one of those visual things which do not translate very well if you are blind.
While this is true, I enjoyed the visit as the weather was fantastic and the climb up to the acropolis was challenging. Bernard’s descriptions were up to their usual high standards and he dipped in and out of the guide book he had bought on the way to give me a background on the various temples and buildings which stand on this sacred Greek rock which has so much history attached to it.
We climbed down through hundreds of steps – so it seemed in the heat of the day – to end the visit sipping iced tea at a small cafe before Bernard asked if we should go and watch the sun go down over the Aegean sea and we set off to catch the train only to end up at a ferry port where trucks and cars thundered past on their way to either ferry or road out of the port. It was a nice thought and he was a little crestfallen when he discovered where we ended up but the fact that he tried to end the day in this way meant a lot to me. Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men just don’t work out but he did promise he would find a beach over the next few days if it killed him! More importantly, I believed him.
Day 39 (8th September)
So today we psyched ourselves up for a further approach to the embassies. After our experiences with our own embassy we felt a little fragile about approaching others but we worked ourselves up and set off. The plan was to approach the Indian Embassy for (opening 9-11 for Visa applications) before moving on to the Pakistan (9-1 for Visas). We were out the hotel at 8.30 am for the trip on the rush hour metro and stopped off at an auto bank to withdraw more money (boy does Athens eat money. It is like a monstrous bottomless pit!)
On the metro it was like being in the Tokyo rush or the London crush except here people are either considerate or kick my stick out the way to get on the train! There seems to be no middle ground; either considerate or very, very inconsiderate). The train itself is very hot and within minutes you can feel the sweat start to gather on your back before eventually starting to travel down. By the time you get off the train you are awash with moisture. It is a relief to get off the train and walk the mile to the Indian Embassy where a large queue has already formed. Within seconds of standing in the queue the door opened and we were waved forward by the receptionist in the doorway. I heard Bernard say “Who us?” and it seems everyone else in the queue also waved us forward! “Yes, yes, come!” came from in front of us and we moved forward to the entrance of the embassy. It was really interesting to note that in contrast to our experiences in Athens (generally) that everybody moved and gave us a little more space to get through. There was understanding that I was blind and this extended throughout the queue and through our whole subsequent visits to the embassy; as this was only the first visit!
The receptionist greeted us warmly when we got to the front door and asked our business.
We explained we would like to apply for Visas and he directed us upstairs clutching our slip of paper baring a number four printed on it while cautioning me about the stairs themselves (which were actually fine). When we reach the upstairs office it is immediately apparent there are two windows; one for Europeans and one for ‘Indian Nationals’. We sit and wait for the number to be called for about five minutes before Bernard realises there are forms in a box to apply and so we start filling in papers while we wait and people move to allow me to sit down.
We leave several spaces on the two forms (one for each of us) as we are not sure what we should write (e.g. Greek address, employers Telephone number). After twenty minutes we are off to the window for the first time. The young lady looks completely non-plussed when Bernard hands over the – nearly completed – paperwork. The begins the barrage of questions accompanied by much pencil chewing. “Why did you not apply in England?” We explained the difficulty of timing a round the world motorcycle trip to any great precision when considering the vast distances involved. She renews her chewing of the pencil with increased ferocity at our answer. The in a flurry of pencil strokes she puts lines all over our carefully filled and completed applications. Anything we were not sure off she put lines through and then she wants a letter from each of us explaining why we had not applied while in the UK. She hands us two pieces of paper and waves us back to our seats to write the same thing twice (again one for each of us). We have to also tackle all of the pencil lines she has criss-crossed our applications with. Twenty minutes later we are back at the window.
A flurry of pencil ticks means that we are winning! She carefully checks every answer with the diligence of a chief examiner and we are sure the Indian Authorities would be proud of their daughter’s meticulous examination of our papers.
She then asks for copies of our passports which she examines; she staples them to the form (round two to us, we are definitely making progress).
She then asks for our letters explaining why we are applying in Greece; she staples them to the first forms (round three, making real progress now).
She then asks for our photographs; she staples them to all the other forms which now are full of staples. We thought round four to us before she looked at us and then disappeared into another office. Bernard is now hopping from foot to foot with anxiety as he was definitely getting excited as the ‘clunk, clunk’ of the stapler indicated real progress. Ten minutes later she is back. With another form. Which asks for the same information we have already given! Back to our – still warm – seats for another bought of form filling. Twenty minutes later we are back to the window with two beautifully scripted forms; both exactly the same! She smiles as Bernard bows in a flourish and presents the forms.
She ticks her way through with her busy pencil before the satisfying ‘clunk, clunk’ indicated to me that they were acceptable to our governess of the Indian Empire!
The fee of 134 Euros (ouch) were handed over and we know we have cracked it. We were not prepared for the sting in the tail as we she asked for our passports; within which she put all of the multiple stapled forms of the last two hours along with our stapled pictures.
Bernard really starts hopping as he describes how she is writing a receipt for the passports and he says:
“Are you keeping the passports?”
“Yes” our protector of the empire says while she continues scribbling.
I gently said to her we needed them for the Pakistan Embassy. Bernard told me she looked at the two of us for a few seconds before asking “When bring them back here?” at this point Bernard’s two feet can be heard drumming throughout the office as he starts to get wound up. “How long will you keep them and when will the Visas be ready?” he asked. “Cannot give date without passports” she said while smiling sweetly – according to Bernard while he starts to mutter under his breath. “If we keep passports, you collect Visa in eight days.” “You want to keep our passport FOR EIGHT DAYS” Bernard groaned “Just to put a stamp or sticker in it? Can’t this be done when we come back to pick up the Visas” “Cannot give date without passports, if you take passports, cannot give you date for Visas”. Catch 22. Trapped. Game set and match to Indian Bureaucracy.
We have no choice but to leave our Passports and exit the building with Bernard muttering and groaning about having no passports for eight days. We did not know what it would mean for the Pakistan embassy application at that time and it may mean we were completely dead in the water for another eight days with no ability to progress the other Visas (Pakistan and Iranian).
As always when things are going ‘pear-shaped’ we sat on a wall outside and the click of the cigarette lighter signified the calming influence of nicotine was about to work its magic on my very irate companion.”Damn……. blast………” and the loud exhale of toxicity ensued as he continued to mutter about bureaucrats and petty rules; which he has a complete aversion to in whatever form!
Over the next ten minutes – and after he had calmed down – we talked through the next phase.
We decided – with heavy prompting from me – that we should go the Pakistan Embassy (passport less) and see what happened. It is important to note at this point that Mr Organised (as he can be) had actually created digital copies of all the important documents before we left England (including our passports). We were carrying photocopies of them which we had printed the day before at the hotel and so all was not lost! So we set off with Bernard in his wide brimmed (crocodile Dundee) hat through the Athens heat to find the Pakistan Embassy. We knew we had arrived miles before actually seeing it by the length of the queue outside the embassy! It is no exaggeration to say that the queue was MASSIVE. I knew it was huge as I heard the large exhale of breath followed by “Oh my God, is that the queue……..bloody hell.”
We paused and I thought we may as well leave it since the queue was so big but Bernard had the bit between his teeth now and we walk to the front of the queue where he very innocently asks “Is this the Pakistan Embassy?” He had already described the huge flag flying over the embassy but it was such a gentle enquiry that the armed security (three of them) replied “yes, it is, how can we help you?”
Bernard explained we would like to apply for Visas and ‘hey presto’ the invited us to follow them in and showed us the lift while cautioning me about the step at the entrance and the four steps up to the lift; he even pressed the lift button for us and indicated we go to the second floor and ring the bell on the wooden door. I could tell Bernard was in his element now as he profusely thanked everyone we came across from that point onwards.
When the door of the lift opened a rugby scrum was occurring in the door on our right with lots of raised voices while the large teak door on our left – baring the plaque of the Pakistan embassy – had only a few people waiting. We rang the bell and the door opened to be ushered into an air conditioned office full of leather chairs and couches. Soon we were joined by ‘Hamid’ who enquired “What can I do for you?”Bernard explained the nature of our journey and our wish to travel through Pakistan only to be met with the same response as the Indian Embassy “Why did you not apply in the UK?” Thus we entered the same story again regarding timing and distances and limited shelf-life Visa periods. He states that it cannot be done as we are two foreign nationals without Greek address. We would have to apply in our home country for the Visa.
Bernard’s crestfallen voice (exaggerated I could tell) indicated this would be so hard for us as we already had the Indian (nearly) and Iranian (not at all) Visas and time was running out on us. His final plea involved the “Is there anything you could do to help us?” statement which he uses very effectively at critical moments (like border crossings!)
It seems Hamid thought about it for a few seconds (Bernard told me) before asking “Only the two of you?” He continues to ponder and then waves his hand and says “Wait” before disappearing into another office. After about 10-15 minutes he reappears and ushers us into an office where a large swivel chair is occupied by somebody more senior who proceeded to ask all about the trip. He directed several of his questions to me including asking about how hard it was to be always in a strange environment thinking it must be very difficult for me sometimes. I explained that it is something that you get used to and that I learn very quickly if given the chance to find my way around. He then noted the problems of what we were asking in terms of a visa as a foreign national but asked where we lived in the UK. As soon as I mentioned Warrington he knew instantly that the nearest Pakistan Embassy was in Manchester and that he would fax the embassy and seek clearance for the Visa from them. Forms were duly completed and we explained our passport predicament which he waved away as “Not a problem” as we had photocopies with us for the application; we would need them for the actual Visa itself.
We were in and out of the embassy within an hour with a promise of an answer within two days. The whole staff were absolutely lovely and so helpful. This helpfulness ran right from the front door all the way through the embassy staff. As we left the building Bernard also noted that where dozens of people where sat on the pavement magically a path appeared for us to walk though. Friends would pull companions out of the way if they say me coming as we made our way for a celebratory milkshake at a cafe up the road.
It was a very expensive milkshake (and burger) but we really didn’t care! After all the frustrations of Visas we seem to have cracked two in a single morning despite what everybody told us and despite everything we had read on the internet about other motorcyclists problems in gaining these two Visas in a short time period. We felt good for the first time in days.
Day 40 (9th September)
Today we set aside for visiting a Greek Visual Impairment organisation and the one we were aiming for was The Lighthouse for the Blind of Greece which was formed in 1946. It operates under the umbrella and supervision of the Ministry of Health and Welfare from which it draws some of its funding. As usual we set of on the bike to visit the organisation as it has a much, much greater impact when I arrive on the motorcycle rather than any other form of entrance.
On with bike gear and helmets and into the Athens traffic where despite multiple wrong turns we eventually arrived safely; although a little dizzy from going round-and-round-and-round looking for the address!
The reception was staffed by a single man with a telephone. He didn’t have anything else on his desk; no CCTV, computer, or any visual aids at all. When we approached him he was completely puzzled by our language and quickly rang somebody before passing over the phone to Bernard (who could see it!)
Bernard explained the nature of our journey and the reason for our visit and it was apparent that they didn’t believe we were actually standing in reception at that moment. “No, no, we are actually in your reception right now” I heard him say. The phone went down onto the receiver and I was guided over to a seat “We have to wait” was Bernard’s explanation “as they send somebody to meet us”.
Descriptions of the office entrance and foyer kept me amused until we were shown the way to go and introduced to Dimitra Asideti, The Director of the centre and it was very obvious she was at a loss as to why we were there! It took some explaining for example, that we were not after money or donations of any kind; we were simply finding out about what it means to be blind in Greece. Once she realised this fact Bernard told me she visibly relaxed and started to tell us about the organisation and its history, structure and facilities offered to blind and partially sighted people. Later on Bernard also told me that within the office, once again, there were no indications of any VI equipment apart from two Braille Machines the likes of which he had never seen before.
It was with some puzzlement that Dimitra asked us about why we were visiting them and we’re not sure if the message ever really got through due to, perhaps, the language difficulties. Sometimes we met this with sighted people but we have not come across this before with other Visually Impaired people (as Dimitra is) who usually respond very positively to what I am doing. Perhaps with organisations like guide dogs (in whatever country) they are more used to having visitors who want to stroke the puppies and such like whereas VI organisations who purely deal with blind or partially sighted PEOPLE are not so used to visitors? It is not like you could visit and stroke a blind person for example; although I know several who would probably like it! In fact I’m sure they would like it but I’m sure you get my meaning. The more we were shown the organisation the more certain we felt that our – separateness feeling – was accurate in a great many ways.
Soon Zoe was assigned to be our guides for the visit and she showed us a great many things during the next two hours.
The centre reminds us very much of one of our local organisations in Liverpool (the former Liverpool Voluntary Society for the Blind now renamed Bradbury Fields) who do a great deal of excellent work under the stewardship of the Chief Execute Jim Moran. It is very much like this in some way but on a much larger scale as they are physically much bigger and draw funds from the central government to aid their work.
The centre has a fully equipped Theatre where shows are staged along with a gymnasium and printing system for Braille along with Audio production facilities. As we were shown through the centre many blind and partially sighted people were drifting in and out of the rooms and facilities as many of the workshops being run had just finished for the day (most things in Greece finish due to the heat between 2-4pm).
Within the centre there are music classes, language courses, ceramic workshops and computer courses. They run the computer classes in the suite and the software used consisted of HAL which is actually produced by one of our sponsors (Dolphin Computer Access) and this speech enables computers for blind and partially sighted people. They do not use Supernova itself – as far as we could work out – nor did we see any CCTVs at all which led us to the conclusion that the centre is very much Braille and speech based regarding sight loss adjustments. This emphasis is very different than many other systems who try to maximise the residual – and usable – sight that people have left.
When we asked about things like audio description for things like TV programmes or accessible newspapers we were surprised that “Most blind people have somebody to read to them” was used as a statement to justify the lack of provision within Greek society.
The really, really good point we picked up was that the centre will produce Braille and Audio Books and will send them to any Greek person anywhere in the world FOR FREE. The staff were very explicit about this provision and (along with being justifiably proud) as it extends to the other publications they produce every month. The Braille production is overseen by Dimitris and he joined us for much of the tour, often explaining the finer points of what it means to be blind in Greece (he has experience of blindness within his family).
The centre runs other various sheltered workshops in such things as producing brushes and brooms along with the inevitable piano tuning but also an industrial production of metal fabrics (not sheltered) for a diverse range of customers (including the armed forces). They are also staffed with two full-time social workers to aid and assist on a range of matters.
It was really interesting to note that blind people in Greece only work for fifteen years and then they are encouraged to retire in order to ‘recycle’ the jobs within the disabled workforce. To enable this to happen the Greek Government ensure that disabled people are financially secure when this happens and many people we spoke to confirmed this fact. It doesn’t matter if you start work at 16 and retire at 31, it is still 15 years! Once ‘retirement’ occurs then most people select to continue working in a voluntary capacity for their expenses, as were a large number of the staff at the centre.
The crowning glory really of our visit was the trip to the tactile museum which the staff very kindly opened up specifically for me to visit and I had a wonderful hour exploring all the historical statues and ancient artefacts of Greece which you, so we were told, could not touch in the national museums or at the Acropolis.
At the museum I examined faithfully reproduced statues which are located in the Louvre in Paris and in the Museums of London. Zoe did make several comments about the history of other countries plundering the Greek treasures and taking them off to foreign lands where Greek people cannot access them. You’ll be glad to know that Bernard officially apologised on behalf of the British people for all the objects residing the British National Museum in London which she greatly appreciated! He can be so diplomatic when he wants to be! She positively gushed her appreciation at his sentiments on such matters.
I had the chance to examine the layout of the Acropolis and appreciate the size and scale of the sacred rock and the buildings which adorn it and, for the first time, it all started to fit together in terms of understanding. For this alone I was truly grateful to the centre.We asked about the fact that we had not seen any blind people up to this point and Zoe answered very candidly about our observation with the point that Athens is very dangerous for blind people. The pavements, the traffic, the metro system and the whole concept of visual awareness has a long way to go. I must agree with this as of all the places we have been Athens has been the most difficult to traverse. Bernard has found it very, very tiring in terms of guiding with the set out of pavements and the ‘rule-free’ driving with the seemingly optional red traffic lights (“I might stop, but then again I might not”). The lack of awareness is truly profound compared to everywhere else. Constantly people look as we pass and there seems no understanding (usually) of what the white cane means. People park their cars across junctions and on zebra-crossings. Motorbikes adorn the pavements and it would be impossible to navigate or learn a route independently. It must be very dangerous to even try yet undoubtedly people do.
Zoe confirmed this fact of how difficult it is to move about on your own as a blind person by saying that most people set out to move to be near the Lighthouse centre and, to us, it seemed so different than in the UK. There people travel all over the cities independently and without serious problems; as do I and many people I know in our daily lives. The difficulty was amply demonstrated several days later when we saw our first blind person in the middle of Athens. A symbol cane user was bouncing off the side of parked cars on the other side of the road while trying to get onto the pavement at a major junction. It must be truly, truly difficult to lead an independent life given all the constraints throughout the city.
When we returned after our visit it was a very sobering thought to how vulnerable you would be as a blind person when we were coming out of a shop.
Bernard was watching the steps down onto the pavement (I stress, onto the pavement) and he had already noted “Two down” when he stated to move. Suddenly a motorbike went past and I was pushed backwards while hearing a startled yelp from Bernard (he actually swore rather than yelp but yelp reads so much better!) The bike had missed his left leg by inches at about 20mph ON THE PAVEMENT and within 12 inches of the step. I cannot repeat the stream of profanities which came from my companion but I did have to ask him how some of the expletives would be physically possible in terms of the man and his motorbike. He was seriously angry and the motorbike rider looked back and must have thought better of it and took off – on the pavement still.
It just goes to show how insecure you would be in Athens if you were on your own and trying to move about. Our trip nearly finished with either a trip to the hospital or the Police cells for Bernard for assault on a Greek Citizen but fortunately things went our way this time and neither occurred.
Day 41 (10th September)
Bernard’s father Jim is due to arrive today on the flight from Dublin at 9pm tonight in order to visit the two estranged castaways in Athens. He had always promised to meet us at some point in the journey and to spend some time catching up on the events so far. We had always known that there will probably be two what we call ‘ serious’ stops. The first was always Athens due to Visa hunting and the second is likely to be in Thailand as we take time to recover from crossing Iran, Pakistan and India.
We had the whole day to fill with no embassy trips and a thought came to mind about an event from eight years ago. The thought and event involved the Corinth canal which I had navigated in a yacht and had actually taken the helm through the canal. Strange you might think that a blind person can steer a yacht through a narrow canal but no stranger than going around the world on a motorbike I’m sure you’ll agree!
I had a hankering to revisit the canal eight years later and after so much has happened in between. I wanted to go back and experience it from the top down rather than bottom up. So we set off the 50 or more miles to the Canal which is South-East of Athens and enjoyed a nice leisurely ride on the motorway. It felt good to be back on the bike and we both really enjoyed being out on it again.
The ride was over before we had even settled in really. We have been used to covering much greater distances and so 50 miles was over in the blink of an eye as it was on perfect roads in perfect blue-skied weather. The ping of the cooling engine was our backdrop as we parked the bike and stripped off all the hot gear, leaving it on the bike we walked the short distance to the bridge which spans the canal.
The canal was eventually built in 1882 although it had been discussed and even started 1500 years earlier. Every Roman Emperor it seems had thought about it (as had Hadrian himself) but all had rejected the joining of the seas with a canal in case the Gods were offended. Some theories of the time even thought that the upper sea would drain though the canal and empty completely; or floods of a massive scale would occur in the south as the northern sea rushed downwards. Eventually, however, the canal was constructed and it saved a 400 km journey around the tip of Greece.
The two experiences across eight years were completely different. My whole sense and memory of the yacht journey was one of peacefulness and tranquillity. Up top the whole site was very commercial and very, very noisy as the road is a major artery on the network. We did, however, take part in the commercialisation as we bought two headscarves for the eventual Iranian Visa pictures! So in many ways we fed the capitalist beast ourselves; but the headscarves are really, really nice and so it was worth being a hypocrite for once!
At the cafe we sat and sipped our cold drinks and before long we were approached by two people from England (Dorset) Christine and Mike who were on holiday from their work in Serbia would you believe (complete with Serbian registered car). They had noticed our voices (English but it was when they saw Bernard go back to the bike several times that they realised we had come all the way from the UK on the bike; and all the stickers confirmed it.Mike is based in Belgrade for up to two years and his comment “Hats off to the two of you” was so sweet and appreciated as many people do not realise the real struggle we have had, on our own, to get this far. It is nice sometimes for people to appreciate the enormity of what we are trying to do on our own. We spent some time talking about the journey and bikes (as always) along with our experiences of the Balkan states and the Serbian people. Mike had noted our Serbian sticker along with the Montenegrin MNE.
They were staying just across the road in a hotel and wanted the web address in order to follow our progress at which our card was produced from the depths of one of Bernard’s pockets; he has so many, bit like a magician sometimes. I swear I can never keep track of what he seems to carry in all those pockets, I know he often rattles when he walks.
They wished us well on our journey and left leaving us to ponder on the chances of meeting so many people from Dorset in so many places of the world (Bayeux, Rome and Corinth Canal south of Athens). Sometimes the world is a very small place.
Leaving the canal in time for the journey back to the hotel and then to the airport involved a very sedate bike ride back to Athens. Setting out for the two change train ride to Athens international airport to meet The Smith Senior was our next task for the evening and we looked forward to meeting a familiar face from back home.
The trip from the hotel involved two changes of trains to the airport and an hour and fifteen minute journey. We arrived in plenty of time and waited for the plane to land.
It was due in at 9pm local time and at about 9.40 (when it had arrived sometime earlier) we were getting worried that Jim had been abducted by aliens or arrested by the Greek Security for having such a large case for a few days. But then again, listening to people around us as they came through the arrivals (and Bernard’s descriptions of luggage) it seems that nobody was going to be doing much washing of clothes while in Athens; unlike ourselves who arrived here with basically very few clothing options!
Eventually the familiar face and voice appeared and it was apparent he was very pleased to see us again as multiple hugs were exchanged.
The journey from the airport back to Athens (as the airport is some way outside as the journey indicates) was smooth and trouble free apart from making sure we did not lose our visitor on the metro system.
The roof garden was our second port of call after Jim had checked in and settled into his room which we had booked earlier in the week and he gazed around the city from this high vantage point like an excited youngster. He couldn’t get over the heat which still existed as we got towards one o’clock in the morning still sat out in the open air of the night. He explained how it had not stopped raining for weeks in both Ireland and England and how he was developing webbed-feet from the amount of water sloshing around the country. We warned him that if he thought it was warm at 1am in the morning he would really feel it the next day as the temperatures where in the high 30s constantly since we arrived. He loved the sense of warmth and eventually we turned in for the night as my eyes were drifting closed as were Bernard’s; for us it was after one on the morning but he was still running on ‘Irish’ time which meant it was only 11pm for his body! We hugged as we separated and called it a night.
Day 42 (11th September)
Now, much as we have discovered, everybody wants to visit the Acropolis and Jim was no different. He wanted to see the sights and experience the culture of Greece and Athens. So we set aside the day to tour the ancient monuments and after breakfast we set off to give him his first glimpse of the cultural mayhem involving Greek traffic; warning him about its idiosyncrasies and the ‘optional’ red lights and the ‘Green man’ (you can cross but only if you take your lives in your hands).
The journey to the Acropolis left him bemused at the lack of awareness around blindness and the use of a white cane as people jostled, pushed and gave little indication of any thought regarding the matter. At times he shook his head with disbelief at how difficult it is to get through the streets of Athens. It was topic of conversation throughout his time with us over the week. I think you have to understand that Jim has gained a lot of understanding and awareness around blindness as he acts as a guide for a walking group of blind and partially sighted people whom we introduced him to. Thus on weekends he can end up tramping up and down hills, valleys and mountains guiding a lot of the people we know. He had done this for over two years now and he sees things completely differently than he used to as his knowledge has grown about all the different blind people he has come in contact with; all needing different degrees of assistance, if at all. A lot of people think ‘blind is blind’ and can reduce all of the individual differences down to the disability. Much like everybody is different in terms of needs, expectations, desires, personality and attitudes, so to the same is true of people with sight loss. We are not all the same and do not all need (or even want) the same things but it takes time to learn and understand this fact. So he stood and shook his head at times at what was enfolding before his eyes.
The staff probably thought I needed two guides as I was unstable on my feet!
The Temple has crumbled to several pillars standing forlornly on their own including one which fell during a severe storm in the last century which has been left in the position it tumbled in. The area at least had information boards which gave us a background on what once was as it is difficult to imagine (even with sight) the mighty structures which dominated the area in Ancient times. Jim’s camera snapped everything in sight and he wanted pictures of everything and anything.
At one point Bernard asked if it was possible there was ‘just a little Japanese in him?” as picture, after picture was taken. It was all done in good humour and with much bantering about “An Irishman in Athens”.
I suppose, much like a lot of people (including ourselves) we spend our whole life working and paying bills as time drifts past us without us even realising how much has gone by. When we do have the opportunity to be somewhere completely different we all want to record everything there is to record; to imprint the visit in our heads and with our photo albums which become crammed with memories. The pleasure streamed from him and the happiness in his voice at being in Athens came through loud and clear as he searched for more and more information and took more and more pictures; insisting Bernard snapped a picture of him ‘over there’ and a picture of him ‘over here with Cathy’ which he duly obliged by taking. We worked our way around the site and moved on towards the Sacred Rock which dominates the hill above Athens.
This trip to the Acropolis was actually much better than our previous visit a few days earlier.
I can say this as the tactile model at the Lighthouse Centre made the whole experience much more acute in terms of putting the physical scale into perspective. The climb to the rock also took a completely different route than the one previously taken. Once again we gained entry for free – and Jim was reduced by 50% – and we passed through the Amphitheatre on the slope up to the rock where Greek plays and events were staged on long-gone times. The climb was also harder on this slope and much more insecure underfoot but it helped me to appreciate the height we were gaining as we struggled upwards. Gaining the upper slopes we passed through another entrance and were waved through without even checking if we had a ticket due to the presence of the long cane. Step after step was climbed until we stood within the very centre of the buildings which have survived for thousands of years of careful maintenance by the Greek authorities. My abiding memory of this day is the comment by Jim who stared and said:
It felt good that, because of our journey, it had given an opportunity for him to have such an experience. Much like many people sometimes we all need an excuse to do something different and Jim is no different than the rest of us. He had an excuse to come to Athens which he probably would never have done under any other circumstances. We walked and wondered at the ancient times and Bernard recalled facts from our previous visit and the guide book to illustrate the fact that the Acropolis is the rock itself; adorned by different, individually, named buildings and, needless to say, many pictures were taken.
As Jim disappeared off around the site to explore for a while on his own we made our way back down and as we passed one of the attendants he stopped us and, in halting English, asked if I would like to touch the Sacred Stones of the Acropolis. After being told at The Lighthouse Centre blind people could not touch anything I was surprised at this. The halting English-speaking guide continued by explaining it was ‘Government policy’ that blind people could touch and explore the monuments of Greece, while also mentioning the same freedom involved the museums? He went on to guide me over to the pillars and as I explored them he explained the construction of various aspects involving time periods; differences which I could appreciate as his hands guided mine to significant points. He spent some time explaining and it was so interesting to listen to his enthusiasm about the structures which clearly, and personally, meant a lot to him; being far more than just an ‘tourist attraction’.
Our trip down from the heights led us to another eventual climb to a rock where it is said that St. Paul talked to Athenians and gave sermons while standing under the blazing sun all those years ago shortly after the birth of Christianity. Jim was mesmerised by the fact he was standing on a rock where St. Paul had once stood so long ago and it is probably one of his abiding moments of the trip. It had such an impact with the Acropolis standing in the background as he gazed about him and tried to envisage such an event. The large brass wall plaque at the foot of the small plateau is, unfortunately, all in Greek and so we could not translate the contents. We can just imagine Jim searching through the history books and the Bible on his return to find the story of St. Paul’s visit to Athens in those early days.
As we sat in the shade at a cafe on the packed streets by the base of the Acropolis drinking copious amounts of water, Jim talked of how ‘he could get used to’ not being rained on throughout the day. The conversation drifted around how much the weather alone can alter people’s perception and whole sense of well-being which the sun brings out. It really does influence everything.
People chat happily around us and there is the constant coming and going through the streets as people meet and then settle into chairs for the long breaks and lunches which are triggered by the afternoon heat. A heat which can stop you in your tracks as it settles on Athens. People hide under the shade and sip cold drinks as they wait for it to pass. We were no different on this day as we sat and talked about the journey so far, filling in details and events across the weeks as Jim does not have the internet to read these updates. We tell him of the trials, tribulations and of all the people we have met on our travels so far.
This conversation went on later into the night when we arrived on the inevitable trip to the roof garden which he likes so much and gives a perfect backdrop for conversations under the canopy of the Greek stars.