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Around Eastern Europe on $80 a day

Posted: January 3, 2009 8:10 p.m.
Updated: January 4, 2009 4:59 a.m.

In Tiraspol, the second largest city in Moldova, no trains come to the station.

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This is the second of two parts of Carl Boyer's 44-day journey through the Balkans and parts of the Middle East.

In Skopje, (the capitol of Macedonia) we stayed in Garšija, an old Ottoman quarter inhabited mainly by Albanian Muslims. We could hear the call to prayer easily from the hotel. The streets were narrow and paved with uneven stones.

We had lunch in Priština in Kosovo, a land independent since February. The city had been destroyed in the 1990s. There were many new buildings, none with real character.

On the way back we got kicked off the bus at the border because we had not shown health insurance cards.
The announcement had been in Macedonian. Once we found out what it was about, we showed our cards, got stamped in, and were allowed to board the next bus without a new ticket.

Back in Skopje, we knew the train station was above the bus station, but it took a lot of effort to find someone who knew where the door was. Few take the train, which runs erratically.

We arrived in Salonika almost three hours late, and got in line to buy tickets to Kalambaka. The lady at the window saw my ticket from Skopje and asked me where I had been.

"Macedonia," I said innocently.

That was the wrong answer. "You mean Skopje!" I got a long lecture in Greek about Macedonia's use of the name of a Greek province. However, she never quit smiling.

Bob took a seat on the other side of the train to get a window, but then came and sat next to me. "You'd rather sit next to an old man than have a beautiful Greek woman join you?"

"I didn't think there was much chance of that," he said.

"Did you consider that a beautiful Greek woman might want to sit next to me," I replied.

He quipped, "There was even less chance of that!"

There were regular announcements on the public address system. Bob told me one said "dinner would be served as soon as the cook finishes the meat."

A few minutes later I translated for Bob. "Dinner has been canceled. There are too many Americans on board."

"Well," he retorted. "One of us has to get off, and it ain't gonna be me!"

On our day in Meteora, we visited the monasteries perched on the top of huge rocks. The trip was memorable, and involved a lot of walking. I had not been in Greece for 16 years - it looked much more prosperous.

In Athens the €12 admission charge to the Acropolis seemed high, but the ticket had stubs good for admission to six other historic sites. A weekly ticket on the transit system allowed us to wander at will. We stayed at the youth hostel, where many of the people were our age.

It was great to be able to buy a phone card allowing me to talk to my wife for three and a half cents a minute.

I enjoyed a copy of the International Herald Tribune at $3.21 a copy, even if much of the news was not great.

Going to Cyprus involved getting up at 2 a.m., taking a taxi to Syntagma Square and then the X95 bus to the beautiful, spacious airport. On the other hand, coffee at €4 (almost $6) a cup was not affordable.

On Aegean Airlines we had an enhanced continental breakfast in flight shortly after takeoff.

In Nicosia we stayed in the old town, Laïkí Yitoniá, and crossed the Green Line into the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, through the UN-controlled dead zone past the Ledra Palace Hotel occupied by UN troops.

The police on the Republic of Cyprus side glanced at the covers of our passports and waved us on. On the Turkish side a policeman was pleasant as he handed us slips on which to write our names, passport numbers and nationalities, and then stamped the slips, which we kept as visas.

I had kept an ear out for news on the BBC, and the region was peaceful, so we hopped to Beirut, Lebanon where we were stamped in quickly. No visa was necessary.

The taxi drivers asked for $50 to Beirut, then $40, then finally he said, "How much do you want to pay?"

We settled on $25, the going price at a busy time, and handed him the exact amount on arrival.

In Beirut, we toured the American University and some of the central area. Dinner at a restaurant in the Place d'Étoile was expensive. There was a heavy military presence.

For $17 each we got seats in a comfortable limo to Damascus, where we stayed at the Sultan Hotel near the Hejaz train station, a place with no tracks.

We checked on our planned Syrian Air flight, and were happy we had been bumped; we had an extra day in Damascus. The people were friendly and the city was fascinating, especially the Ummayad Mosque, which contains the tomb of John the Baptist.

Only the Street Called Straight was a disappointment. It was being being refurbished and was not too interesting, nor was it truly straight.

I had noted the lack of any significant military presence, but they took down my name from my passport when I went to use the Internet.

Walking was not easy. While there were many beautiful things to see, we had to watch every step. The rule was step out of the way, stand still and then look around. That way you would not drop into a two-foot-deep pit full of electrical wiring in the middle of the sidewalk.

We took a domestic flight to Kameshli, and a taxi had us at the Turkish border 20 minutes after we landed.

It took three hours to get into Turkey (where you can no longer pay the visa fee in dollars), but by 4 p.m. we crossed the border into Iraq, the northern part where the Kurds keep things very peaceful and open for tourism.

Iraq was the only country where we were served tea at immigration.

The town of Zakho was not exciting, but everywhere we walked people, especially kids, would ask, "Americans?"

We would say yes, and get the thumbs up sign. "Good!"

While in Turkey our bus was stopped by the "trafik polisi." One of them came on board and handed out chocolates to each of us, part of the tradition of Bayram, a Muslim holiday.

Then we went to Mardin, Turkey, where there were more than 700 channels in many languages on the television, but no TV guide. We started at channel one and found the BBC on channel 734.

From that prosperous town we visited the ancient city of Diyarbakır on the Tigris, where one policeman of whom we asked directions arranged a ride, siren blaring, to our destination.

In southeastern Turkey we traveled usually by dolmuş, or shared taxi, sometimes called a "crush taxi."

In the İstanbul airport we took an elevator to the new metro station, changed to a tram and were soon in Sultanahmet. This neighborhood of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia was familiar territory, and more beautiful than ever.

Then it was the night train to Veliko Târnovo in Bulgaria, a pretty town with cheap prices, once the national capital. In Romania, we had a long day in Transylvania, climbing to both Bran and Raşnov castles.

In Braşov, the honest taxi drivers were worthy of mention. We had to be careful, but most used the meter without prompting, and gave printed receipts for the very cheap rides.

From Moldova we went to Tiraspol in the breakaway Transdniester Republic, the last bastion of Communism in Europe, its independence assured by Russian peacekeepers. Stamps are good for mail only inside the country, and its money is of no value in the rest of the world.

Our next stop was Odessa, Ukraine, a beautiful place reminiscent of old St. Petersburg, Russia, and took the wonderful night train to Lviv, a city which escaped World War II.

From Lviv, I flew home via Warsaw and Frankfurt, and Bob went on to Russia by way of the Baltics.

We had been exposed to Hungarian, German, a variety of Slavic languages, Greek and Arabic. We managed to make sense of the Roman, Cyrillic and Greek alphabets, and made no attempt to learn to read Arabic.

We had stayed well, and outside of a few attempts by taxi drivers, had no problems with crooks. At one point we were asked for $213 for a four-mile ride. We ditched that guy and paid $4, which was still too much.

I came home from a great trip 15 pounds lighter. Perhaps more important, we spent just a little less than our planned $80 a day each.

Carl Boyer is a former mayor of Santa Clarita and founding councilman of the city of Santa Clarita. He has traveled extensively and served as vice president of the SCV International Program and president of the California chapter of Healing the Children.

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