I had a revelation this morning. I’m still trying to suss it out, but it goes something like this. I’m on a 5-week motorcycle trip through the Balkans. It’s a pretty ambitious loop, starting in Prague, heading down to Budapest, over to Romania, through Bulgaria, down to the Greek mainland, west to Albania and then up along the Adriatic and mountains and over the Alps back up to Prague. I’ve finished the largest part of the loop and now I just have to get back to Prague in a little under 2-weeks. In a serious push I could get back in 2 or 3 days, so I have a little free-time. That was the problem.
I arrived in Albania yesterday. Crossing the border from Greece I was immediately struck by a difference. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I coined the term charmingly ramshackle. It somehow felt authentic. Like the Albanians weren’t trying to pretend they were something they weren’t. Some say they are struggling to come out from under a long relationship with communism. It reminded me a little of when I visited Greece 28 years ago. But I digress.
I’ve been romanticizing about a trip along the coast of the Adriatic almost since I first visited Croatia 20 years ago. The landscape was stark, with rocks and scrub brush, but spectacular nonetheless. Maybe it was the crystal clear water of the sea. For sure it was the water. I had never seen an ocean like that before. It was like I was looking through liquid air. The rays of sunlight went clear to the bottom where white rocks reflected them back to the skies. It still fills me with awe.
Throughout this entire trip I’ve been booking hotels the night or morning before I left for my next destination. When I was in Greece looking for a place to stay my first night in Albania, I couldn’t decide. Along the coast there weren’t many hotels, but instead apartments for rent. I prefer a hotel. The recent landslide of home rentals has taught me one thing. Hotel staff know how to provide hospitality. They are there if you need them, but otherwise blend into the background. That’s the way I like it. Staying at someone’s home has never felt comfortable to me. So long story short, I was looking for a hotel and couldn’t find one that fit all the criteria I wanted: beach front, secure parking (for my motorcycle), shower, breakfast included, A/C (it’s been silly hot) and the last thing I wanted was the most difficult to find. I wanted a place that didn’t have a road between the hotel and the ocean. There’s nothing worse to me than trying to enjoy the calm gentle rhythm of the ocean waves and then having a dump truck go thundering past at 50mph.
So for the first time on this trip I set off in the morning without a hotel for the night. Wow! True adventure, right? Ha. Well, off I went. I got to the first town in Albania I was considering while researching and it was a complete shitshow. PACKED! Traffic! Tons of sunburned beachgoers and tourist traps everywhere. Definitely not my scene. So with a self-satisfying smirk, acknowledging I hadn’t booked in advance, I continued north along the coast. The next town was slightly less crowded, but still not to my liking. But guess what? It was only noon, I had wheels and I could do whatever I wanted. So on I went.
The landscape continued to be spectacular including a huge mountain pass right on the coast. On the very top were a couple restaurants. I seldom stop for lunch while riding, as I’ve usually had breakfast at the hotel (refer to hotel requirements above) and I generally plan on having a large early local dinner feast when I get settled in my new digs for the night. But today I was switching things up and decided to stop. Speaking of switching things up, I was about to ignore one of the many travel lessons (#9) I had learned the hard way after almost 40 years of international travel. Something was off.
There were two restaurants, one on the view side of the road and one with a road between the restaurant and the view. Of course there were no tables available at the restaurant with the unobstructed view so I moved my motorcycle across the road (Travel Lesson #182: owners are notoriously protective of their parking). Besides, I figured the food would be just as good and slightly cheaper on the obstructed view side of the road (Travel Lesson #428: location always affects prices). I checked the prices on the menu before I sat down (Travel Lesson #3: always confirm prices first) and everything looked good. The one thing I didn’t do was ask if they accepted credit cards (Travel Lesson #9: confirm payment methods before purchasing). I wasn’t too concerned though since I had Euros and Dollars and if they didn’t accept either of those there was a town nearby where I could go and get some local cash.
Lunch was great, a half kilo of grilled pork (which was their smallest portion) and some fries with sour cream for dipping. With a full belly and beautiful, albeit obstructed view, I ask for the bill. He brings it. I ask if they accept cards. He says no cards, only cash. This was what I was expecting. When researching accommodations, many said to pay in person with cash, rather than online with a credit card. It seems either the Albanians can’t get credit card processing or they choose not to pay the extortionist 3% that credit card processors charge (I’ll save that rant for another time). So I ask if they accept Euros. Yes he says. I asked how much in Euros and he seems flustered and says he will go check. This is the equivalent of the used car sales person saying they have to check with their manager. Ahh. Let the dance begin.
In the meantime I jumped online and found the Euro equivalent. I took out some Euro notes and coins that included a generous tip for him. He came back and stammered and didn’t really say anything. I showed him the conversion on my phone and he says that is for exchange, not restaurants (Travel Lesson #12: never exchange money at a restaurant or store). He sees the coins and says, no metal. My only other Euro note is a 50 and I’m not going to give him that and get screwed on the exchange. So I show him the Euros including a generous tip and his eyes light up. I say, “This is good?” He nods with his hungry eyes focused on the Euros in my hand. I say, we are ok? He says, yes! I give him the Euros and head out quickly before a surcharge he forgot to mention shows up. He no doubt feels he scammed me, and I feel good getting away with what could have been worse.
During lunch I had decided that I had gone far enough for the day. On the other side of the mountain pass was a small beach town. I looked online at a few places to stay, read reviews and decided on a simple place that included breakfast and was attached to a first floor restaurant that had a great view of the sea (Travel Lesson #8: the second floor in the US is the first floor everywhere else. The ground floor is presumably the zero floor. The formula is F sub A – 1 = F sub E, where F sub A is the American floor number and F sub E is the floor Everywhere else in the entire world. Actually makes sense.). Of course there was a road between the restaurant/hotel and the beach, and there would no doubt be lots of traffic, including dump trucks, but what are you going to do.
I got to the hotel about 4:00 and things didn’t align with my expectations. I don’t know what I was expecting for $36 a night including breakfast, but it wasn’t this. The wind was howling and stirring the typically clear Adriatic water into a muddy brown. The beach was packed tight with umbrellas and browned to-a-crisp tourists. The bathroom in the room was the kind where you can take a shower while sitting on the toilet. The hosts were kind but I just wasn’t feeling it. I was expecting my first night back on the Adriatic to be a bit nicer than this. I decided later in the evening that I would bail on Albania after just one night and drive across the country to North Macedonia for no other reason than to check another country off my travel list. That decision didn’t sit well with me though. I’ve never been a person to travel somewhere just to check it off my list. I always went somewhere to experience it. To see some sights. To meet some people. To feel a culture. So I held off on booking a hotel in North Macedonia until the morning. I’m glad I did.
This morning is when I had my revelation. I woke up early after one of the best night’s sleep I’d had in a long time. The sun was just coming up behind me as I walked across the now silent road. The wind had calmed and the water was that crystal clear I had experienced so long ago. I had the beach to myself except for a stray dog cleaning up the previous day’s beach leftovers. I put a beach chair at the line where the ocean meets the sand and let the warm gentle waters swirl sand between my toes. Not far off shore a fisherman fed his nets into the sea like he probably had for most of the days of his life and like his ancestors before had done for generations. And this reminded me of Words to Live By that had inspired me so many years ago to steer my life on a different course. That was the revelation.
The story is of a Mexican fisherman and an American businessman. If you haven’t read it, I highly encourage you to do so (you’ll find it here). Anyway, I had been so busy for the past few weeks, looking at where I was going the next day, that I hadn’t been enjoying the place I was that day. I was always looking forward and never down at my own two feet. I did that this morning and saw sand between my toes. It made me happy. I was there. That Adriatic coast that I had dreamed of for so many years was beneath my feet. And I was about to bail on it. But not now. Thankfully I listened to that little slice of doubt from the night before. And thankfully I hadn’t booked that hotel in North Macedonia. And thankfully I woke up 2 hours before breakfast was available. And thankfully I decided to wait on the beach. And thankfully that fisherman hadn’t decided to sleep in this morning.
So I decided to take a break and write down these thoughts. Incidentally, it’s the first time I’ve done any writing on this trip. I decided to have a third cappuccino. I decided to move up the coast at a pace that would allow me to appreciate this time I have here. I decided to smile at the child stomping at the table behind me. I decided to go for a swim in the ocean even though it meant I might have to pack a wet swimsuit. In short, I decided to let go and let the road guide me. I’ve traveled all over the world, spent cumulative years in foreign countries and I’m still learning how to travel. At times I forget what’s important. I get caught up in the frustrating details of it all. But thankfully I still have moments where I have clarity. Moments where I can see the ocean through the waves. Moments where a revelation can still happen. Moments like today.