Tag: kosovo

About, part I

It’s funny traveling like this, ignorant and bold — not that I feel bold, but people I meet often think I am. There’s this conceit among bicycle tourists that we get to know a country better than our engine-powered brethren due to the use of our own effort to move through the terrain and by our encounters with people and things off the beaten track. Simply due to the limitations of how far one can ride in a day. I think this conceit is largely true, but if thereby we think we’ve gained any significant knowledge of a place or its people we go too far.

I had been in Kosovo for less than two days and expected to remain for only another three. I didn’t speak Albanian or Serbian or Macedonian. I assumed that people were greeting me in Albanian, but I wasn’t sure. Our interactions were limited to a few English words and gesticulations.

So I could write things like “the people are friendly here,” which was true, but it’s almost always true — it’s trite, a platitude. Then I read a bit about the history of Ferizaj, the town I was in, and found that the place had been torn apart by ethnic fighting during the war. And I started to look at people differently, like “what was this person doing 15 years ago?” And how real was that friendliness?

And then, walking down the street, past the grocery store, the bookshop, kebab restaurant, I came across a local non-profit working with people with Down’s syndrome. And I was surprised.

Despite myself, I was surprised! Not deeply shocked or amazed, but just “oh, I didn’t expect that.” And then surprised that I was surprised. Why?! Of course there would be people here with Down’s syndrome and of course the community would want to organize some way to help them. Right?! I mean, they’re people. Like me. Couldn’t they be friendly and have a difficult history of political violence and caring for the disadvantaged all at the same time? Like anyone else? Like me?

Yet I would dare cruise through the country and say “oh, I’ve got a grasp on Kosovo now?” Ridiculous. I don’t even have a grasp on myself.

And that’s what draws me back to travel. And especially slow travel by bicycle. It surprises me despite myself. It shows me interesting views of the world and interesting — and sometimes uncomfortable — views of myself. It tears away the conceit that I understand these people and places.

It says “the world is big and fascinating and beautiful and you will never understand it.”


My route from Macedonia into Kosovo took me up through a rainy, foggy forest to a pass at 1100 meters where a man waiting for a bus insisted on buying me a cup of coffee from a small restaurant. The experience set the tone for my week in Kosovo: warm and friendly people and cool and rainy weather. From the pass I rolled down through green farm land and scattered villages to the city of Ferizaj.

Upon reaching the first big intersection in the city I suddenly felt like I was no longer in Europe. The chaotic traffic, bustling sidewalks, half-finished buildings, and hardware stores with merchandise out on the street corners was reminiscent of Morocco or Ethiopia. Away from the busy intersections this feeling diminished, but the Turkish influence–or at least similarity–remained clear in the mosques, kebab shops, and cafes.

Also evident in both the cities and the countryside was evidence of the recent war. I saw several NATO KFOR vehicles, road signs indicating rules for tanks, and signage warning of land-mine areas as well as those areas which had been cleared. Every few kilometers I passed a memorial to members of the UÇK–the Kosovo Liberation Army.

I had an opportunity to drink coffee with another man at his house and he pointed out to me the abandoned, half-destroyed buildings in his village that were remnants of the war. He also noted that the village had both Albanian and Serb residents. However, when riding through the country I saw lots of signs where the Serbian words had been spray-painted out, so I wonder how welcome Serb-speaking residents would feel in the villages.

I spent an extra day in Ferizaj hiding out from the rain then biked west to Pejë at the foot of the mountains that border Montenegro. Where Ferizaj is clearly a working town, Pejë is more of a tourist destination. The city sits at the mouth of a dramatic canyon coming down from the Bjeshkët e Namuna range (even more dramatic when you realize that the name means “accursed mountains”). I waited out another rainy day in the city and never saw the tops of the mountains due to the constant rain and cloud cover.

But finally the rain let up and I spent the next morning climbing up to the 1800 meter pass into Montenegro.




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