Monday, May 7, 2018

Postscript

I miss them. Really.  The twenty strangers-one-week-since with whom I shared 100 kilometres of road and track and tortoises, mallow, and poppies ("Oh, My!").  Such a disparate crew we were... But as was said more than once on the final day of our walk: "Such a fine bunch  of people! No-one was a dick, and no-one really lost their shit despite the stress..." I guess we have all been tempered and tested in other fires, and that shone through in our caring for each other.

Somehow it feels like now, my usual daily routine of getting the boys up, getting breakfast, getting them off to school is the alien practice -- whereas the last week of waking up in a strange hotel room, packing and re-packing a rucksack, checking and re-checking water, snacks, money,  passport, camera, blisters... is the norm.

Waving the boys out of the door with the usual admonitions and washing the breakfast things, have replaced Eleni's Hakka-style warm-ups, and trips between the washing machine and the line fill in for the hypnotic placing of one foot in front of the other. Frin posted a video of her feet walking on the road -- such a familiar sight! I never thought I would miss it (and am sure that I won't for long!), but just now, I do.

I would love to get out and walk -- early morning here is delicious before the heat starts closing in, but "No time! No time!" There are lesson materials to print, white board pens to find... And where are the school keys?

My old reality is once again my reality, the shared week on the road receding to that nostalgic place where aches are forgotten and camaraderie cherished. I am sure that I am not the only one who feels this sense of dislocation in returning to my daily life.

I believe that friendships were forged which will endure, and raise a (water!) glass to all who shared last week with me between Thessaloniki and Skopje.

You all know that you have a place to roost in Cyprus if you ever fly this way.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The End of the Road

Well, we did it. All of us. A few sat out the optional dawn circuit of Lake Mladost this morning -- 6 km that I did without pack and boots as we were coming back to the hotel for breakfast. I nearly skipped it myself, but my roomie Christa got up, so I got up, too. It was pretty, but not spectacular, but as usual on our walks we paired off into couples and trios and had some good conversations. Not everyone agrees with everyone, of course, but I think that everyone listens and learns and we benefit from each others' experiences and perspective.

The morning was cool, the water, mirror-calm. The trash, in various picnic spots, disappointing. We are the only animal that fouls its nest so. I don't understand what is in people's head when they toss an empty plastic water bottle from a car, or leave bottles, utensils, and plastic plates in a place where they have gone to enjoy a day out... What do they think happens to it? That is magically disappears? Do they want to prepare their next picnic, pack up their children and drive to the lake only to find that their anticipated picnic spot has become a dumping ground...? Ugh... I could rave for a long time.

So, back to the hotel for breakfast, then we loaded our bags onto Roman-the-Bus, and off we went.  Eighteen kilometres today -- and it was a hard eighteen. The sun came out, the hill kept going up -- and it went up seemingly endlessly before it began coming down -- the road was tarmac which takes its toll on knees, hips, and ankles... But conversation and camaraderie made things easier, and some difficult miles slipped by. Chris kindly carried extra water for me again, and that made a lot of difference.

Toward the end, I began flagging and had to keep in mind my reminders for good posture: a blood-red helium balloon with a picture of a skull that wants to float upwards and forward, its string is my spine -- lengthened and straightened by the upward floating of the balloon -- and somewhere below, my feet are active feet, propelling me along, flexing at the toe and ankle joints. If the head and the feet are right, the bits in the middle will slip into place.

I found it easier not to stop and rest. I could not sit, so standing around was trading a discomfort that was at least moving forward for an extreme discomfort that was not getting me anywhere. I preferred to keep going.

...And at last Roman came into view! At last! May and I were in the front, talking about something that I can't recall, and suddenly I saw the white sides, the blue logo... and we were done. And it was group photo time, then pile on board time, then drive into Skopje time with a couple of stops en route, and check into the last hotel. Dinner is in a little over an hour, and tomorrow some of us will transfer to Thessaloniki and our next adventure. Or our planes home. Which could be one and the same thing.

You can help, you know. It's not too late to sponsor me, and you know that I have finished the walk. Please consider contributing to my fundraiser. This has been a tough week, but as I said before, we are walking in the footsteps of those who had it much tougher. And for refugees trapped in Greece, the ones that Refugee Support Europe works with, life is more secure than it was on the road, but it is still hard, frustrating, and lacking in the dignity of choice and independence.  And the flow of refugees is not stopping: this last week, thousands more crossed the land border with Turkey. The demand for relief doesn't stop.  Please consider a contribution -- every little bit helps.  Ramadan is coming -- your donation will make it a little easier.

I have a feeling that this walk has been a kind of a watershed. That ideas, thoughts, and feelings need to float around for a while, need to re-align, need to settle. I am sure we will meet again on these pages, so this is not 'Goodbye'.




Thursday, May 3, 2018

A Long Day's Journey ... to the Winery

Short post today. It is late...

So today was blessedly cooler than yesterday. And the paths were less dusty... and although we did more miles (14 in total), it somehow didn't seem as hard.  We met a local guide called Joki (rakish looking bandit in the top photo) who was very active in helping the refugees when they came flooding through before the border closed, and with him, we walked the actual track beside the railway that they walked. For the last few days, we have been in the general area, following the general route, along broadly similar tracks -- but today, we walked in their footsteps.

In their footsteps we stopped at the railway station at Klisura, reading the graffiti on the walls of the now-shut-up building. Rana translated the words of homesick young men who used charcoal to mark their names, their towns, their dreams. A notice on the window called attention to the dangers of walking on the tracks: "Twenty-seven lives have already been lost!"

Then we passed through the Iron Gates and under the motorway bridge, and walked the last few miles into Demir Kapija, all of us finding it hard to imagine the tranquil village with its school and playground the setting for thousands of desperate families, in tents and without, as they passed through on foot, by bike and by train seeking sanctuary.

Demir Kapija is also the site of one of Macedonia's best known wineries, and only three of us sat out a well-planned tasting with delicious-looking nibbles and five local wines.  Then we boarded Roman and headed for our hotel not far from the city of Velles.
















Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Walking the Walk, Day 3

So this morning began with stretching before an intrigued section of the local population (possibly nursing hangovers from the night before), who seemed baffled but appreciative of Eleni Fearless Leader's inspiring instructions for stretches and energy balls and reaches. It was an early start, as we wanted to beat the heat -- so we headed north along the shore of Lake Dorjan under massive plane trees, past boats and fishermen's huts, cafes, bars, and little farmsteads.

At some point we branched off into all but impenetrable footpaths -- "Wasn't this overgrown when I did the recce," Fearless Leader muttered -- and went through an abandoned Yugoslav-period summer camp, then a children's summer camp. Very Socialist Realist architecture... my dormant passion for exploring abandoned buildings kicked into high gear, but there was no opportunity, so we continued on...

Cherry and almond trees, walnut and apricot shaded the path, vineyards ran beside it, and we often crossed fields of cabbages. The vegetables were unpicked, flowering, and sometimes stank to high heaven with a sulphurous cabbagey smell that made me want to gag.  Marjan, our local guide, said that the price had been too low this year to make picking profitable, so much of the crop was left to rot. We later passed a field of broccoli, and I was glad to see that that had been picked.

Marjan is old enough to remember the Former Yugoslavia. He was 13 when Macedonia became independent, and like so many people that I know from the former Soviet Union or Eastern Bloc countries, misses the security that communism provided. "Now," he said. "You work 2 or three jobs to be able to have a car. Is that freedom?" Before, there was care from cradle to grave -- and to young people who are struggling, leaving their communities to work abroad, living hand to mouth, 'freedom' seems a poor trade-off.

I am not sure how far we walked today, my Map my Walk app was cutting in and out and has probably totally depleted my phone battery. I think it was around 12 miles. Maybe a little more. We had a beautiful lunch spot -- shaded cabanas beside a lake (which many people plunged into, in various stages of dress and undress). I didn't swim. For the first time my feet gave trouble -- hot-spots that are the precursors of blisters beginning on both -- so I had to care for them. We may be over the hump -- three days finished out of five -- but they have to carry me a lot further.

We all seem to be becoming acclimatised to the distances and the heat. Neither seemed quite so hard today, though the dust and the glare were probably as bad as yesterday. I did use dioralyte rehydration sachets in my water (expiry 2008, but I figured that the contents were pretty inert and would probably not go off), and made sure to drink enough. Chris, bless his cotton (or not) socks, carried extra water for me.  People are really supporting each other, and it is great to experience.

My back, it seems, is thriving. No pain! Onward!
















Tuesday, May 1, 2018

May Day

Today eclipsed even the hardest day of Leo's and my cycling in Poland last summer as being the hardest thing I have ever done. We covered nearly 14 miles in temperatures that hovered at around 32 Celsius for much of the time we were walking.  As Marian, our Macedonian guide who is usually point man said to me, "In Macedonia we are not out at this time. At this time, in these temperatures, we sleep!" I told him that in Cyprus, it is the same. "Only mad dogs," I said "And English people go out at this time!" He didn't get the reference, but agreed.

We started our day with a Hakka-like stretch following the words and actions of Eleni Fearless Leader, then headed out along farm tracks north of Kilkis. The early start followed another night of very little sleep for me -- a rogue motorcyclist kept the town up at around two in the morning by whizzing around and backfiring, and the bed was not particularly comfortable, but, whatever... We were on the farm tracks bordered by blood-red poppies and an assortment of other amazing coloured flowers -- thistles, mallow, rape, wild parsnip -- all growing beside the ripening barley, still emerald green this far north.

The farm tracks were good going, even as the sun beat down. As people's strides lengthened or shortened, conversations began, ended, were caught again, continued down different avenues.  We are 23 intelligent committed people, we all have things worth saying and listening to. The miles went by... But the sun beat down, and the temperature rose, and, like the refugees who had traversed these or similar paths on their way north, we found nowhere really to stop and rest.  The bus met us every couple of miles and we refilled our water bottles,  but generally there was nowhere to go but on.

Again, I realised how difficult the journey was for the people in whose footsteps we are travelling. Yesterday, we were blessed with cloud cover and a breeze -- no such luck today. And although it is unseasonably hot at the moment, we at least had plentiful water, sandwiches and snacks,  and good boots.  For those without, it must have been a nightmare. We also had no tired children, and knew that a shower, a comfortable bed, and dinner awaited in the not-too-far-distant future.

As we approached the border, we saw a large Greek flag flying on the shores of Lake Dorjan. Wanting a last photo op before Macedonia, we approached -- hailed boisterously by a group of Greeks enjoying a well-lubricated barbecue on the shores of the lake. The more adventurous among the walkers stripped off their clothes and dived into the water. Others accepted the partiers' ouzo, tsipporo, and roast meat, explaining in sign language who we are and what we are doing... more ouzo was poured.

Then back to Roman-the-Bus, so dubbed because of the name of the travel agency on the side, and a wait at the border while our passports were processed ... then a short drive through the throngs of May Day celebrations in the holiday town of Dorjan.  Because of the holiday, and because of unexplained cancellations of our reservations, we have been put up in a very luxurious hotel that boasts a standard higher than anything encountered thus far. JUST what I need! My roomie took a shower and went out for a beer, but I preferred to stretch out, read, download my pictures, and upload this. Dinner is in a few hours, so I am going back to my chillin'.

See you guys tomorrow...













Monday, April 30, 2018

Eko, Idomeni, and Skra

Well – long day today. This little donkey tracked 17 kilometers today and can certainly feel her feet. Tomorrow, Eleni Fearless Leader said at dinner, will be longer.

We started out driving to the Eko Station which was one of the camps in the Idomeni area. It is hard to believe that this motorway station, on the arterial road between Skopje and Thessaloniki was, two years ago covered by tents; that children ran about and played around cars filling their petrol tanks; that tens of thousands of desperate people pushed through here on their way north. But it was so.

Photo: Kelly Anne Lund




It is hard to imagine, from our comfortable hotel rooms, with showers and dining rooms; from our relatively easy walks carrying day packs, with a bus to back us up if we get sick or tired, how it would have been for those tens of thousands of men, women, and children -- carrying what they had left from their flight, eating what they could find or were given, wearing dirty clothes, ill-fitting shoes -- it is difficult to imagine what they went though; the pain, the fear, the uncertainty.  They came flooding through slightly earlier in the year than we are here now, the sun may have been a little less hot (though we were blessed with overcast and a breeze for much of the day), but the road was hard and the days were long. Still they came, and they kept coming -- only to be brought up short at the Macedonian border.

Our first walk was a 3 km ramble through country lanes. Poppies, redder and larger than those in Cyprus filled the edges of the fields.  All through the day we saw smears of scarlet through the green of ripening wheat, grass, other crops -- truly spectacular... 


Our destination was a nearby Lidl, where many refugees stocked up with supplies. We did, too, then boarded the bus for Idomeni. The village is quiet now, but the border area immediately around it is still sensitive, so after a coffee in the village kafeneion, served by cheerful though bemused women and watched by some doubtful soldiers, we greeted the one living soul in the railway station, a hungry but timid young dog, and set of AWAY from the border and into the hills.






We had a bit of a detour, through 'undulating' country – that seemed to mostly undulate in an upward direction for quite a few kilometers to the village of Skra, where we had lunch, and later walked to look at some waterfalls. I counted about 232 stone steps on the path up. By this time we were all feeling our feet. Or as if we didn't have any feet.

Then we boarded the bus and drove to Kilkis. Tomorrow, we cross the border.


Wifi is really bad here. I want to post some 'before' and 'now' pictures of the Eko Station and Idomeni, but it might not be possible.

Arrival in Greece

RyanAir was delayed.  For some unaccountable reason we sat on the tarmac at Paphos airport for 40 minutes before taking off, which made us late landing, which meant I missed the airport bus and had to take a taxi -- but I got to the rendezvous point and met the rest of the walkers before our Macedonian coach came to whisk us off to our hotel for the night. My back complained at the long sitting, but has given no overt twinges.

I still don't have names matched to faces, for the most part.  Our Fearless Leader Eleni and Doc Heather are the Skyline crew members whose jobs are to shepherd us from point to point and keep us safe and healthy -- young but experienced, they briefed us last night at dinner about things like border sensitivity, the route that we will take, care of feet, dehydration, and hygiene. Paul, Bea, and Rana, are founder and trustees of the charity that we are supporting -- Refugee Support Europe -- which was actually born here, in Alexandria (about an hour's drive from Thessaloniki), when the army opened a camp to take the pressure off Idomeni in May 2016.  My room mate is Christa from New York.  Others, I will introduce as and when...

Hotel Manthos, where we are staying, has been a rock, a lifeline, and a home away from home for countless volunteers over the last few years. Anna, the proprietor, is one of those Greeks who has really stepped up -- like the islanders and the fishermen and the countless other nameless people who showed their humanity by opening their hearts to the desperate people who flooded into their already struggling country. As well as supporting volunteers, she opened respite rooms for free to women who had given birth -- by Caesarean -- in the local hospital, and had to leave at the end of the day.  Some stayed for over a month.  She spoke to me in fluent, if careful, English, and broke into a huge smile when I told her I speak Greek. "But where did you learn?" she asked. "I live in Cyprus," I said. "Twenty-five years!" "Why then, you are Greek!" was her answer... I winced, on behalf of every Cypriot who stands up for their Cypriot-ness in the face of Greek or Turkish nationalism, but there was no point in saying anything, and I was helpless in the tide of her warm hospitality.

It is now just after 6 a.m. I have been awake for over an hour, and my alarm has just rung. Breakfast is at 7, and we will be off at eight on the first leg of our trip -- a visit to the Petrol Station camp, and a walk to Idomeni. Because of sensitivity around the border, we are not crossing into Macedonia there, but rather hiking away from the camp itself and transferring by bus to the border. I am sure Skyline doesn't want any of us getting beaten, shot, or teargassed as the Macedonian border police and army were happy to do with the thousands that tried to pass two short years ago.

Anyway, onwards! Must get this show on the road... More, and of course pictures, to come....