[Warning - this email is long and rather boring - if you'd like to just skip to the end and look at the pictures, I'll fully understand! It just seemed to take on a life of its own as I was writing - good theapy for me! For those of you who persevere to the end, CONGRATULATIONS!]
Well, its been awhile since you've heard from Judy and I, so I thought we'd send an update to let you know we both survived our respective vacations this past winter semester. It has become our habit of late, not so much by choice but rather by necessity, to take separate vacations - while this unfortunate trend looks likely to be continued over the next year or so, Judy and I certainly hope to put a stop to this nonsense after that point - but that's another matter!
As most of you know, Judy and I headed off in separate directions across the globe this past January - on the 19th at Busan international airport, Judy flew east via Tokyo and Minneapolis to Winnipeg, while I flew west to Europe. Judy went to see Rebekah, as well as her parents and extended family, while I was able to spend a week each with Wes (in Italy and Slovenia) and with Lynnette (in Albania).
Judy's outbound and incoming flights were all routine, while mine were anything but! My first clue to the unusual was when we both headed to the airport from our Busan hotel room that Tuesday morning - Judy was able to check her baggage and get her boarding pass with minimal effort, but my unexpected adventure was only beginning. To make a long story short, my Lufthansa flight was cancelled due to mechanical problems with the plane and it took four flights, three different airlines, one bus and a very indirect route through Asia (Hong Kong) and Europe (Zurich) to get to Venice, Italy - the good news is, the ground staff were willing to re-book me directly to Venice, instead of to my original destination in Rome. Even though I arrived in Italy almost 12 hours after my anticipated arrival, I was able to bypass Rome and fly directly into Venice - and at about the same time in which I would have arrived by train from the capital - God is good!!
I had been anxious to get to Venice that morning because Wes was coming from Slovenia to meet me there. He had to be in the northern Italian city of Trieste that morning (Slovenian visa regulations) anyways and we had planned to meet in Venice. We spent four days touring the Venice area and, despite some difficulties getting to understand and use the Italian transportation system, were able to get around quite well. We then went by bus back to Ljubjana, the capital of Slovenia, where both of us managed to cram into Wes' "cozy" [cramped] room for a few days. By day, Wes generally studied for his exams while I explored around the city (very nice!) - by night (10:00 being late for me!) we went out to sample the Slovenian cuisine (not bad - a bit on the heavy side, but not bad!)!
While in Ljubjana, I started to explore options about entering Albania, which turned out to be easier said than done! I was still overweight (the baggage, that is - me too, but I was more worried about the luggage that held all the stuff I was taking across half the world that Lynnette had requested - but that's a whole other story!), so decided to travel to Macedonia, a neighboring country, by bus - that entailed an overnight drive of 14 hours through Croatia and Serbia (think middle of the night trudges through snowy boarder checks along the way), FINALLY to enter Macedonia at 4:00 a.m. (yet ANOTHER snowy walk through border security checks) and arrival in Skopje, the capital, at 5:45. Imagine my dismay when I was told that the one bus available to travel into Albania wasn't running until 7:00 p.m. (some 13 hrs. later!). I scrambled to take another bus up into the mountains to a Macedonian town near the Albanian border - it was already snowy in Skopje - and it got snowier the higher up into those gorgeous mountains the bus went! To make another long story short, after getting off that bus and hauling my luggage through a foot of snow (creating a snowplow effect all the way!) to find a taxi driver willing to take relieve me of most of my remaining Macedonian currency and take me the 14 kms up a mountain pass to the Albanian boder (passing trucks putting on their snow-chains along the way), I did manage to walk (actually, shuffle through the snow!) to the border, present my credentials, FINALLY exchange Euros for Albanian currency (Leke), and find yet another taxi driver who was more than happy to relieve me of much of my newly acquired Albanian cash! It took two additional furgon (kind of a cross between an Albanian taxi and a bus) rides to FINALLY make it to Lushnye, then a final 1 km trudge down a street in a steady drizzle (STILL dragging my luggage behind!) to where daughter Lynne has a shared apartment with an Operation Mobilization team-mate. Finally, I made it, and was able to empty the contents of the one suitcase containing supplies that my baby had requested.
As a country, Albania has many challenges ahead of it. For one thing, the infrastructure (roads, internet, HEATING, etc.) is sorely lacking. The country emerged from communism in the early 1990's and still has far to go to catch up Europe, as well as many other countries throughout the world. Most people (Lynnette included) do not have indoor heating, as that is considered to be an expensive luxury. When considering that concrete structures get very cold (I was reminded of Judy's and my 1.5 years of residency in Wuhan, China) in Zero Degree Celsius temperatures, it was not easy keeping warm that week! The country does have some beautiful areas though - namely one area in which I enclosed several pictures - its a UNESCO world heritage site - overall though, there is still a lot of improvement (job opportunities, infrastructure, etc.) which are necessary!
My experience in traveling from Slovenia to Albania only confirmed my conviction that I should travel across the Adriatic Sea to Bari, Southern Italy, from Durres, Albania. One week after I arrived in Albania, I boarded the ship for a 9 hour overnight journey. My accommodations on board, while modest, were certainly comfortable - there was plenty of heat and even the showers were roomy and equipped with all the hot water I would ever need! I had found out that it was a Greek vessel (The Athens) that also wouldn't take my few remaining Leke as payment on even a cup of coffee - Albanian currency is not only hard to obtain, its almost impossible to use once outside of the country - oh well, I now have more souvenir currency - we'll send it to Lynnette with her next "care package". The journey was largely uneventful - I'd gone to bed early so awoke about 5:00 a.m. - when I got on board about 5:30 (after that wonderful, long shower!), I was rewarded by a gorgeous sunset rising over Albania to the east, with the dark coastline of Italy rising up ahead of me - to top it all off was a gorgeous half-moon and a sky full of stars - beautiful!
When our ship docked in Bari, Italy, I'd foolishly thought I'd quickly clear customs - not so, the leisurely Italian immigration officials seemed to say! I waited in line for about an hour with at least 150 other passengers prior to finally clearing customs. Now if I'd been a European Union citizen, I would have had a customs official line almost to myself and a clearance pass in about 2 minutes! Oh well, such are the breaks! By the time I'd gotten to the train station, I was able to book a train but had no time for breakfast - the 5 hr. journey from Bari to Rome took me through some gorgeous scenery - vineyards, olive groves, mountain tressles, ancient Roman aqueducts, hill top villages, you name it: I even saw Mt. Vesuvius (the ancient volcano that buried Pompei two centuries ago) in the distance.
When I got to Rome by late afternoon, I was hungry, since I hadn't eaten since the night before. After finding my hotel/hostel (nice place, but even hostels are expensive in Rome!), found a place selling great pizza (they charge by the piece and weight in Rome - not cheap, but oh-so-delish!): I was amazed at the variety of toppings!! The next day it was raining, which matched my mood - by that time I'd had enough of traveling, plus I missed my wife: Here I was in one of the most gorgeous and romantic cities in the world without my lover, wife and best friend! The following two days were sunny so that improved my mood somewhat, although I was still plenty ready to head back home! Rome is amazing, with all its old ruins, statues, variety of architectural styles, and, of course, food and the Vatican - they've got an amazing collection of treasures in that city! I mostly wandered around, but took a bus tour on one of the sunny days - it was great to sit on the open top of the double-decker bus and bask in the sunlight!
My flight was due to take off early the next Tuesday morning - so early, in fact, that the direct train running from downtown Rome to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport wouldn't have been running - it would have taken me 3 busses, starting at 3:00 a.m., to have gotten to the airport before 5:00. My solution was to sleep at the airport - I, along with about 30 other weary travelers in transit, tried to get some sleep but that proved to be difficult, considering we were under the watchful and somewhat suspicious eye of the local constabulatory - the cops checked my credentials (passport and airline reservation) twice throughout the night - I don't think it dawned on them that no-one would willingly bunk down in a rather run-down, deserted airport overnight unless they absolutely had to!
My flight from Rome to Munich, Germany was uneventful (thankfully!), but that would, of course, change on the next leg of my journey home - we boarded the plane for South Korea only 20 minutes late, so I was hoping we'd get off in time - not to be though! When we'd finished boarding and anticipating being pushed off from the loading platform, the pilot came on the intercom to report a "problem" - turns out a part needed replacing and its replacement didn't work either! To make a long story short, we had to disembark after an hour, then wait for a replacement plane to be readied. Wouldn't you know it, the snow had begun to fall again (Munich was cold - I'm glad I was in the airport - great place, by the way!) so the plane had to be de-iced before we FINALLY took off 3.5 hours late. Of course, the plane was packed so I tried to make myself as comfortable as possible (at least it was only a 10 hr. flight on the way back!). Of course, we landed in Seoul (Incheon) way behind schedule so it was doubtful the plane would even go on to Busan - great, I thought, another shuttle to Seoul Gimpo and then a domestic flight to Busan - for fortunately, they did decide to fly out there after all, so I finally got back just before noon - still 8 hours to go before I would pick up my beautiful bride - plenty of time to get our pre-arranged hotel room, a nap and a meal. Of course, Judy's flight had no problems - she even got in 1/2 hr early, but I sure wasn't complaining - it was so wonderful to see her again!
We stayed in Busan for a couple of days, mostly just lazing around, eating and sleeping. By the time we took the airport bus back to Pohang, it was starting to snow - we decided to take a taxi directly back to our University and the white stuff was accumulating - by the next morning, no-one in our region was going anywhere - we found ourselves in a winter wonderland with at least 8 inches of heavy snow on the ground - we'd gotten back just in time - our area rarely gets any snow at all, let alone a significant accumulation, so it took a few days for the roads to get cleared - we were raiding the back of the fridge and cupboard, since we didn't have many supplies on hand - one more adventure - oh well, it was good to be home!
Now we're in the final stretch before our classes begin again next Tuesday. We're already planning our next (likely separate) holidays - won't we ever learn?!?
I hope everyone enjoyed this "epistle" - if you gave up reading and just skipped to the end, I fully understand!
Love to all,