While cycling in the Balkans we are regularly asked where we are from, for me this is met with nods of approval, smiles and words of praise. Whenever Sheena says Ireland or various versions of the word to try and say it in whatever language is appropriate she faces a kind of nervous grimace showing that the person isn’t really sure where she is talking about. It seems that here, Ireland is as well known as Togo, French Guiana or St Kitts. Worse off (for Sheena of course, not me… I get to carry it on for longer), is when someone just says, ah so same, you are from Great Britain! Today we asked people outright if they knew or had heard of Ireland… not one of them had! poor old Sheena…. It seems you need to either a) have more football teams b) make better music or c) start bombing more countries.
Last night we were given strict instructions to be ready to leave the hotel at 8am (the filthy one) and we had no idea why, and were unsure whether the man was telling us he was going to be opening the door at 8 or we had to be out by then. The hotel had been locked with us in it at 1am, not that we were up then but he had explained at the same time that we had to be in by 1am and out at 8am. At 8 we were just about ready to leave, with most things packed up when someone knocked loudly then burst in – “you must leave now!”… ok ok, calm down, we will be ready in five minutes. We were thinking this was all a bit excessive, yes it was a Friday, but they cannot close every Friday? It quickly transpired that today was the religious holiday of Bajram – one of the most important Muslim holidays and essentially in practice quite similar to Christmas – everyone heads home or somewhere to see family, kill an animal and have a big meal. Added to this, in Mitrovice, kids buy bangers and other small semi safe Chinese fireworks and throw them everywhere in the streets. KFOR and Italian Carbonari patrols were more regular as we were assembling our bikes on the street.
Seeing, and more importantly getting to eat chilies is a rare occurrence here. As soon as we crossed from Holland into Germany the availability of any kind of food with even the slightest hint of spice has been minimal at best. Anyone who knows us will understand the pain and suffering this is causing us on a daily basis, our four bottles of Tabasco now nothing but a distant memory. Last nights dinner came with the option of chilies, looking like the large bright green picked sort you get with a drunken doner kebab I asked for lots as they are not usually that spicy. I was in pure heaven as after my first bite I realised they were pure fire. I smothered my dinner with them, I ate them on their own, I would have taken the whole jar if they let me… it was amazing to be reacquainted with my pleasurable burning of my favorite foodstuff – even Sheena was stuffing her face, the usual quick point and ‘look, huge bat!’ had no effect as she guarded what was on her plate from me like a hawk. So why was this important? It was 8.15am, the hotel was locked, the holiday meant that everything was closed and the secondary, less pleasurable after effect of eating copious amounts of chilies hit hard. An exceptionally frantic cycle around the streets of Mitrovice occurred, avoiding cars packed with departing people and kids throwing fireworks under our wheels, as I desperately tried to find a café open. With one found we ordered coffee as rapidly as my joy turned to dismay after finding out they had no loo… arghhh, you cant allow someone to relax thinking they have found somewhere and then take it back, straight back on the bikes but with an even higher level of emergency… closed, closed, closed, closed. It was real code red stuff as we raced through the busy streets, avoiding man holes with the covers missing, darting between a German KFOR convoy held up by a broken down Passat with a sheep in the boot, its soldiers no doubt confused by my increasingly Chechen appearance on a bike with British flags. Don’t worry, the story ends well – I got to use perhaps the grimmest toilet west of Delhi, but then with Sheena drinking so much coffee we essentially toilet hopped between cafes, buying food at the only shop we could find we eventually left about 2 hours later.
There was a mass exodus from the city, and presumably a ‘how many people can you fit in an old VW golf’ competition. There is a limit, and the rows of broken down cars lay testament to the fact that nine people is too many. Just incase there was any doubt in our mind, our first stop outside the city reminded us just how embarrassingly hospitable the people of Kosovo are; also serving us a taste of what the day would be like. We pulled over to check out a large memorial, a huge Albanian eagle that served to remember five civilians and four soldiers killed during the 90s. Fresh, crisp new Kosovar, Albanian and US flags lined the road, a clean well kept grass path led to the neat, smart rows of memorials. As with all graves here, pictures of the people were etched onto the stone – the civilians smiling and the soldiers depicted as Rambo-esk characters, most likely unable to move under the weight of ammunition belts and guns tucked into every conceivable pocket/seam. As we returned to our bikes a smartly dressed man asked if we had time for a coffee, before we had a chance to reply he disappeared into a nearby house… returning a short while later with an ice cold bottle of coke, a tray with two glasses and his mums home made baklava! We spoke in a mix of German and English as he explained the holiday, all the time he stood with the tray insisting we eat and drink more – truly amazing. We thanked him profusely and made it up the next hill super fast, bellies full of the most amazing, sticky sweet nut filled baklava.
We had a series of hills, none particularly high but each one tiring us. The constant beeps, waves, shouts and children hanging out of windows staring in disbelief egged us on but eventually we needed a break and came across a small rural shop. I grabbed a can of Fanta from the fridge outside and went into pay, the lady at the till staring almost wide eyed…. This happens quite a lot and it often turns out to be the person concentrating extremely hard trying to remember the words of English they know, eventually as you are just leaving the shop a stream of words are blurted out all in quick fire “thank you, you’re welcome, goodbye, have a nice day!!” I misunderstood how much she wanted for the can, she took half the amount of change I had offered her. I had barely had a chance to open the can outside and the lady appeared asking if we could speak French. Before we knew it, we were sat down outside her house as her amazing three daughters then plied us with cake, pastries, more drinks and Turkish delight. We actually couldn’t move with the amount of food and drinks they were bringing us – absolutely crazy! We had a nice conversation, took photos then after a good hour or so tried to cycle off.
The scenery was rolling, yet the hills seemed bigger than they were. The huge mountains next to us were what we had to cross coming from Montenegro, looking at them now I have no idea how we did it. We rested in a field for a while as it was quite hot and I wasn’t feeling so great still after having a cold. We had one last hill to do before it should have been quite flat, our target of getting to Peje was out of the window after all the stops we had. We visited one last shop which resulted in a scene that could have rivaled the “your supposed to haggle!” part of Monty Pythons life of Brian. We just needed some pasta, we had a short conversation with the young man running the shop who then insisted we must have some things. He insisted we have something, “please, you must have some more things”, ignoring our replies that told him this was not the best way to run a business he followed us out, hand on his chest insisting we have something. Just as he passed the door he grabbed the last thing in the shop – apples, and came running out after with a handful of apples, putting them on our bikes. He then practically begged us to sit and have coffee, or have some more ‘things’ from his shop!! I apologised as much as possible, explaining that there was just an hour left of light and we still had to get to Peje – 20km away. He understood, but didn’t take it well – I’m sure I saw a small tear dropping as we cycled away! Sheena later said that in retrospect, after our mornings adventures, she should have asked for a six pack of toilet paper.
It was close to getting dark so we made the decision to camp, after seeing a strange half built car showroom type building with a large freshly cut field behind it we pulled in and found a corner that had nothing growing on it and was out of sight. There were no houses nearby to ask so we set up our tent, but not long after a tractor pulled in with a trailer on the back. I went to greet the driver and explain that we were sorry we were here, it was just for one night and was it ok – all in hand gesture form of course. He said ok, but didn’t seem so sure so it was a bit uncomfortable. He parked in the field and collected cut grass with his rake, quickly filling up the trailer and pulled out towards the main road and out of sight but we didn’t hear him drive off. We had sat not doing anything, or unpacking any more of our stuff as he had worked, but started to now that he had left, although we were unsure if he was ok and if he had gone. About 30 minutes later he walked past us and gave me a smile and big thumbs up, he then went to some nearby trees and carried on doing something else that I couldn’t see. He then came back, sat down with us and we had one of those bizarre conversations where no one really knows what each other is saying, but photos on mobiles are looked at, we try to answer the questions asked but probably get it wrong…. The most common are where are we going, where are we from, how many km per day, how many km so far, what do we think of x country. He, like the other people who have seen us camp or we have asked to camp are concerned about if we are going to be cold, and offered us to stay with his family. He enjoyed watching us get our stove out and make popcorn, a nightly starter for us as a kilo of corn is less than a euro – you hardly need any to make a big bag of them and it is great to munch on as we start to cook. What was he doing at the trees? Collecting walnuts for us! I think he was a little unsure of us at the beginning, surprised to see us. As it got dark he wished us well and was off, just in time for us to enjoy our dinner.