Decenuary is winter’s August. Decenuary, of course, is that weird two-week limbo period in late-December and early-January, nestled delicately between prolonged periods of monotony, for which the politically correct term is now ‘Winter Holidays’, but which I have come to call, Decenuary. The only difference between August and Decenuary is destination and choice of apparel – beach and bikini versus home-of-family-member and winter coat. The rest is the same: empty offices, abandoned school buildings, forgotten emails, and gimmicky seasonal trinkets sold in mass.
Decenuary is cause for celebration of two major events – Christmas and New Years. In Albania, Christmas really isn’t a big deal, but New Years might as well be the 21st-birthday of everyone in the country. In an act of complete irony, or perhaps incompetence, I spent Christmas in-country, and New Years outside of it.
I spent Christmas alone in my apartment. There, I weathered the self-induced quite of solitude. A kind of solitude that was put in greater perspective against the backdrop of a day spent by most people in good and numerous company. So, I tried to be the good company I didn’t have. I did a little cleaning, listened to a few podcasts, Skyped my family, and attempted to make a pizza using left-over dough from the freezer, way too much tomato paste, chicken, and chopped vegetables. The pizza was a disaster, but I bought some chocolate which provided both pure enjoyment and a palette cleanse. A few days later, I packed my bags and set out for Bajrum Curri to begin the first leg of a week-long journey. New Years would be different.
You can’t be a man living in Bajrum Curri unless you are the archetypical manly man who struts around wearing at least two pounds of chest hair and who has an unmoved expression after downing what is the equivalent of rocket fuel in a cup. So, just to fit in, we threw back a couple shots of raki. It was five in the morning and we were gearing up for the start of our trip as we waited for our driver. He showed up about ten minutes later and we piled in, just the five of us.
We were an unusual cast: Karl, the effervescent life of the party and energetic troublemaker; Luke, our maletorë (mountain man) with a keen sense of direction and go-with-the-flow demeanor; Eric, our observant compass and steady guide through many drunken and hazy mornings; Ian, the eclectic song bird and originator of many deft, yet eccentric topics of conversation; and myself, the point of reference in any crowd, save that of the Kosovars, who are a long and tall people.
We arrived in Prizren, having blown across the border without so much as reaching for our passports. The driver wanted 60 Euros (about 80 USD) for an hour and a half trip that should have cost about 2,500 ALL (Albanian Lek). After some arguing, we through him 4,000 ALL (about 40 USD) and left to catch our bus to Skpoje. We arrived in the newly rebuilt city around three o’clock and were greeted by a host of bronze statues, the most grandiose of which was the twenty-plus meter-high equestrian statue of Alexander the Great. When we arrived at the hostel, we were greeted by a more lively host, and one of no less grandeur.
Oli wore waist-long dreads folded on top of his head and secured by a great rubber band, gaged earrings, parachute pants, a poncho, and a hippie-philosopher’s disposition. With a few suggestions from Oli, we set out to see what Skopje had to offer.
After exploring the city, we posted up at a local brewery near the main bazzar to sample one-few-too-many of the city’s beloved brews. We ended up befriending a group of Macedonians at the brewery who proceeded to take us under their collective wing by introducing us to the city’s buzzing night life. We stumbled back to the hostel around five in the morning. Eric was there, Karl wasn’t. Apparently he decided to give our new friends a tour of the hostel a couple of hours later, to which Oli was none too pleased.
We woke up on New Years Eve around twelve in the afternoon. Having been told about nearby underwater caves, we hopped on a bus to the end of town and took a taxi to the state park. It was foggy and dimly lit, giving the placid, narrow waters of the shallow mountain river an eerie ambiance, contrasted starkly against the jagged mountains rising from either bank. In the summer, private excursion companies take tourists scuba diving in the submerged caves laying somewhere below the glassy water and exposed mountain sides. It quickly became dark, and we made our way back into town to get ready for another night out.
The city had arranged for three separate public event venues, each with their own live bands. The main square was abuzz with people setting off firecrackers, venders peddling glow-in-the-dark bracelets, and audiences of hundreds drunkenly swaying to live music. Just before the final ten second countdown our group became separated in the tightly packed crowd of one of the main concert venues. As the clock’s second-hand ticked past its much slower appendages, Luke and I found ourselves in the midst of the lively crowd with no one to kiss but the backs of our hands. We inched our way through the mass of people convinced that it would be just the two of us for the rest of the night. However, after some time wandering through the main bazzar, we were gloriously reunited with our lost companions and proceeded as a group of five, thus multiplying our collective antics in the many and various bars and clubs we graced with our presence in the early morning of January 1st, 2014.
Sleep came around six in the morning. That afternoon we took a bus to Sofia, this time under great scrutiny at the border patrol, which we were made to walk through in order to catch a new bus from the Bulgarian side. On the new bus, I sat next to a young Bulgarian doctor and we got to talking. It turned out he had participated in a number of Peace Corps sponsored youth leadership conferences in the early 2000’s and remembered fondly his time with a number of PCVs in his home town. His story emphasized to me that the impact you have on people may be difficult to see in the moment, but becomes more visible under the scrutiny of time.
The bus pulled into a quiet and sleepy Sofia around eight in the evening. We set out on foot for the hostel. At a major four-way intersection, a taxi, which was the only vehicle on the road, stopped to solicit us for his business and preceded to hand us his card, upon which was adorned a number of naked women and a phone number on the back. The light turned green and he drove on, leaving us behind with his card, which we promptly through in the trash. It was late and we were tired from the nights before. We grabbed a quick bit to eat and got settled in our rooms to welcome a much needed night of sleep.
Sofia was a dreary city. It was a city forsaken by its outward appearance, which reminded its residents around every corner of its communist past. We spent most of the day exploring the city. At one point, having taken the commuter train too far outside the main city center, we stepped off to make our way back by following the main tracks. This soon proved futile as the large stones accompanying the rail ties made walking a slow and rather tedious task. Soon a train arrived and took us back to the main square.
When evening came, my companions and I made our way to meet two other volunteers who were also in town for the night. We met at a local Irish pub. We started the night with a couple Irish Car Bombs a piece. This was to set the tone for the night. Luke soon befriended a sixty-something ex-pat who had been living in Sofia for a number of years. They exchanged hats – Luke’s, a beany; our ex-pat friend’s, a beret. Before calling it a night, he told us about a secret underground bar that he and his friends frequented and that he also deemed “illegal” for a variety of unspecified reasons. We took down the address and decided we would make this so called illegal bar our final stop for the night.
After bouncing around a few different places, we arrived at the secret entrance to the bar and pushed through the door to find an empty staircase leading to a cloudy open doorway which revealed our intended destination. The bar was filled with ex-pats and English-speaking Bulgarians which made having a conversation much easier than it had been in some of the other places we had visited. The mood was struck by a two-person live band which played for most of the night. We made a lot of new friends and bought a lot of drinks. After some reflection, there may be a strong correlation. Regardless, we became the life of the party. Eventually, we paid our tabs and took leave, exiting without the faintest idea as to what could have qualified that bar as an illegal one.
We got an hour or so of sleep before being rustled awake by Eric, who had vowed to get us to the bus station in time to catch our seven o’clock ride to Pristina. It had been a heavy night, and we moved along as if we were carrying a much heavier weight than we really were. In the process of gathering ourselves and our things for our trek to the bus station, we were forced to make the sobering decision to leave a man behind. Karl refused to wake up, and in-so-doing, opted to stay behind, but resolved to meet up with us the following day in Kosovo. We would not see him again on that trip.
Arriving later that evening in Pristina, we decided to reserve our first night in Kosovo for a good night’s rest. The next day we treated our new host city as we had treated those prior by exploring on foot. Planning another late night out, we went back to the hostel to nap. The extra sleep reenergized us and we began again in earnest to repeat similar escapades from nights prior. Our preamble to the night was a couple games of poker with some of the guys we had met at the hostel. Later, we went out with them to check out what Pristina’s night life had to offer.
Luke and I stayed out later than the rest. At four, I checked my watch and, realizing I was late in meeting up with Eric to catch the early morning bus to Tirana, parted ways with Luke to make my way to the bus station. I ended up catching the five o’clock bus and, still drunk from my evening out, proceeded to pass out for the majority of the ride. I arrived dehydrated and hung-over in the capital.
I had traveled more than 1,000 km and over twenty hours in the past six days, all by bus. We hadn’t been typical tourists. We hadn’t eaten at any expensive restaurants or stayed at any of the fancy hotels. We hadn’t even visited the main tourist attractions. What interested us were the people of the places we visited. And, after almost ten months of reserving ourselves to early nights in and occasional low-key evenings out in Albania, we were interested in letting loose a little and having a bit of fun. We had escaped to places where no one knew us and where we could behave as any other obnoxious American who believes they’re invincible and who resolves to act as if they rule the world. It was a pleasant taste of life unrestricted and ungoverned. It was the kind of trip you would never feel guilty about, but that you recognize should be reserved only for those once in a blue moon occasions.
With that, my Decenuary drew to a close, and I was soon back in the saddle geared up to endure that long ride through the mountains of emails and valleys of deadlines which precede the glimmering waters of summer.
Here’s some more pictures: