From UK to Serbia, via Albania part 2: meeting Tom

The bus station back in Dubrovnik was heaving, at only 9.30am. I bought a ticket for Kotor then a quick espresso, counting out my final kuna coins, before joining the throng of people around the bus.  Everyone was a tourist, all with huge bags, either on wheels or chunky rucksacks like mine, many with extra shoes dangling from the back, like mine. The bus driver, fat and bearded, spoke no English. The crowd spoke no Croatian. He dealt with the language gap by shouting loudly, coming to my attention as he repeatedly shouted at a stunned young couple, slamming the suitcases for emphasis and counting numbers on his fingers. The crowd whispered to each other about what to do to avoid such searing displeasure.  We were all nervous travellers, trying to get a connection to travel elsewhere that would remain tenuous until the vehicle was driving away with our bottoms firmly on bus seats, luggage stowed and tickets checked. The man wouldn’t accept tickets shown on a phone, only paper. Sweat dripped from the end of his nose. An Australian woman drifted away to try and get the information kiosk to print her ticket. “Kotor” he said to the Norwegian couple in front of me, and waved them back to another compartment. We waited. He disappeared. We waited. He appeared again. Took more people onto the bus. We waited. It seemed the bus was full. Whispers around the crowd. We watched each other, knowing who was going to our shared destination, keeping an eye for any major movements. A woman appeared, spoke authoritatively, there would be another bus soon.

We waited an hour and soon enough were thronging around another luggage compartment, following new driver’s instructions. The bus was late enough that the people with 11am tickets were trying to get onto this bus too. I stood there in the crowd, sweating and thought about all the bad decisions I’d ever made that had brought me to this point in life. Eventually we were all on the bus and moving. At the border there was a huge queue. We ground along slowly for a whole mile of traffic and then, once at the Croatian checkpoint we got out of the bus to stand individually at the mirrored checkpoint, watching uniformed hands scan our passports. Then we got back on the bus and drove 400m to repeat the process to enter Montenegro. Then the driver disappeared for more than half an hour, leaving the bus idling and the passengers grumbling. I read my book about the Balkan war, about Serbs burning Muslim villages, about the Croatian surge to retake Krajina and wondered how much of this tourism was here 30 years ago. How high were the prices then. How friendly were the people. 

Maybe everywhere right now is a hot expensive mess. Maybe this is summer in Croatia on the tourist choked coast. I left Serbia at the start of June, where the cherries were just ripening on the trees and I could walk on shaded forest trails. Now I’m looking out of the bus window as we thrum past bare, dry, rocky hillsides, wiry bushes and the unceasing rattle of cicadas. 

This isn’t where I want to be; I want to be in the wet green mountains, where there aren’t any restaurants and the people are welcoming, where the deer bark at night and the tortoises crackle sticks in the undergrowth. I want to be away from salty wind and hot tarmac, where dew falls and the streams run clear, where tractors rumble and women wave from their perch sidesaddle behind the drivers. 

We disembark in Kotor, Montenegro, after a 6 hour journey that should have taken 2.5. I have another bus booked for 6.30 the following morning. I go to the nearest hotel, it’s 100 euros. They let me sit in the foyer and find hostels online. I walk to the hostel. It’s full. They tell me all the hostels will be full. I go back to the 100 euro hotel. I take it. I very deeply want to be back on my route in Serbia, camping five nights a week, and not here in expensive touristland. 

Kotor is a beautiful town that sits in the most beautifully shaped bay, a set of linked triangles, with corners and peninsulas that force the road to wind in and out until you don’t know where the sea is anymore and all there is are mountains rising huge and high, cupping the water on all sides. It’s utterly gorgeous and I am utterly unappreciative. I just want to stop travelling. 

One more bus journey and it’s over. One more bus journey and I’ll be in Albania, the city of Shköder, meeting the man I’ve been chasing down the Croatian coast. 

His name is Tom, he’s 30 years old and he’s walking around the world. 

He and his dog Savannah have been walking together for almost 4 years, covering 16,000 miles to date. They will walk east from Europe all the way to Mongolia, then skip down to cross Australia, possibly New Zealand and Japan, then finally the width of the USA, back to where Tom started in New Jersey in 2015, having covered an expected 25,000 miles. 

He is a moving target, I thought I could meet him in Croatia, then it seemed he’d made it to Montenegro, then, as my hitching times grew longer and I gave up in favour of buses, we agreed to meet in Shköder, Albania. 

I am almost there, one more piece of transport. The final bus is a minibus, not so crowded. I am the only passenger waiting to get on at 6.45am. We cross the border into Albania and I see my first herd of sheep scurrying to flatten their shape against a wooden fence as the bus passes, small boy with stick in hand chivvying them onwards against their fear. The bus flows out into the opposite lane to pass three cows pacing slowly behind a horse and cart. Phew, I think to myself, I’m back.  I’m back to the places where my coffees will be priced in pence not pounds, where I can relax about food costs. The smell of lavender wafts with the wind through the open windows and I see a lorry in a crushed stone car park, man squatting at the front of it, cooking on a gas stove with a stained piece of cardboard to protect the flame against the wind. I’m back in the places that have character, that are worn and human and full of life. 

Tom is pleased too, he’s found Europe to be smooth sailing. You can get food and water everywhere, he says, it’s safe to sleep at night. The roads across Montenegro were narrow, he could only take a single main road that was busy and stressful. We agree that Albania is a breath of fresh air after expensive touristic honeypots. 

He’s sitting in the street outside the apartment I booked, a tall lean man, browned with the scruff of the road. There’s a tall man, a wheeled cart and a yellow dog who runs past me to smell inside the yard. The dog is Savannah, adopted from a shelter in Texas to ward against nighttime marauders, and she’s walked beside him ever since. Her paws are so strong, her nails so hardened, that she leaves pinprick bruises on my thighs every time she jumps up to say hello. 

I get the impression of a calm, pacing man, slowly walking his walk and totally immersed in it. He’s a little separate from his surroundings, a little reclusive perhaps, certainly not leaping to shake hands and make conversation as Nils and Marie were. 

I feel like I am meeting a star. This man is the medalled Olympian to my lower league semi professionalism. I am here to see how we are the same. I am here to see how we are different. 

We walked together for half a day. I skipped ahead in the afternoon, not wanting to hold him back. Tom walks a minimum of 21 miles a day, more than I’m comfortably capable of, especially when fresh out of a month off and overloaded with a too heavy rucksack. 

The heat was a shock, sun beating down from an unforgiving blue sky as we walked out of the city of Shköder and along the road between the plain and mountain edge; pacing and sweating on never ending tarmac is my least favourite type of walking. Tom sticks to roads because of the cart, which turns out to be an extremely expensive baby buggy for women to go jogging with. The US equivalent for ‘yummy mummy’ is ‘Manhatten mom’, I learn. 

I tell him about what I’m doing; coming away from my own challenge to meet other walkers in the middle of theirs, trying to contrast our experiences to learn about my own, to see myself more clearly. 

He asks what I’m trying to do better and I tell him that I can’t stop competing, even with myself, can’t stop giving myself a hard time, that I rarely feel good enough, that I feel as if I’m making things difficult for myself but I can’t see how to be different. Tom starts talking, he’s a philosophy and psychology graduate and it shows in his calm wisdom. He talks about both being there, as in finishing a journey, and never being there, that we are in a constant state of uncertainty and the most important thing we can do is accept that, that if we don’t then it is possible for nothing to ever be enough. “The important thing is not to try and control the outcome, only your stages of preparation, that’s where you should be satisfied that you have done your best.” 

“I don’t worry about anything anymore. I worked out all my personal problems. During the first year and a half of walking I thought every thought I possibly could, I chewed over every memory, turned over every stone. By the end of the Americas I was just walking through the desert with an empty mind.” 

I am in awe of this; this is the holy grail, he’s gone through to the other side of his brain and it took a year and a half of walking, longer than I’ve ever managed without a break.  This is what I’d like to achieve, to calm my chattering brain, to stop thinking. 

The scale of what this man is attempting is staggering, I try to imagine how it must feel to set out to walk for six years, the shrinkage of individual days in relation to the total. My entire challenge is something he’s seeing as ‘the easy bit’. The immersion of committing many years to one project, to knowing that this is all you will do, month upon month, time stretching into the future filled with the same repetitive movements. 

There’s a zenlike calmness to him, a detachment from the small things. He is a cool deep pool of water, undulating with his own ripples, undisturbed by the agitations of plans going awry, shaking off irritation as his dog Savannah shakes away the dust of her resting place at his feet before readying herself to walk beside his cart yet again. 

I was only walking with him for one day, half a day if you account for the distance I hitched ahead, wary of slowing him down, of my blisters that had come with new sandals, not wanting to waste energy on tarmac that didn’t contribute to my own mileage. 

It meant that I only had a couple of hours of evening left to ask him my questions, the ones I’ve asked to all the walkers, the ones that are shaped by the problems I struggle with when trying to walk thousands of miles – loneliness, self pressure, difficulty staying focused. 

We were camped on a flat, cleared piece of land, blatantly visible to the few houses nearby but Tom didn’t mind. “It’s Europe, there’ll be no problems”. I acquiesced, knowing I would never camp so openly by myself. After an interruption by a goat herder, miming questions for Tom to answer, I could question him. We talked our way through sunset and into darkness; as the moon rose behind the mountains and dog barks echoed from their territory edges. 

I asked him if he ever doubted his purpose, if his reasons why ever wavered. Never. This had been his dream since the age of 17, he’d only gone to university because his parents insisted. “When we used to go on holiday in the car I would look out of the window at the fields, imagine myself walking through them. Out there. I’ve always wanted to be ‘out there'” 

The sense of human going towards wilderness, the urge to explore, to experience the unknown; for some it’s an impulse that bubbles from deep within. I know what it means, the sense of getting out there, when the ‘there’ is an indeterminate location, merely an intangible sense of ‘other’. 

 

We touched on the relationships we’d given up in order to pursue our challenges. We talked about how we both imagined the houses we’d have one day, the fantasies of antique mirrors and homemade furniture. Savannah snuffed at me and I startled, I’d forgotten she was there. 

It was good to meet somebody who shares my experiences, someone who understands the simplicity of wild camping, who has pushed their body to its limits in the name of following an idea, who prioritises the daily changing of socks over pants, who is doing something that gets them called both crazy and amazing in equal measures. 

I wanted to give him a huge squeeze of a hug goodbye next morning, as we parted at the road, but he only committed with one arm, half his body somewhere else, away from me, already moving on. Savannah walked around me once and then turned to follow him. 

I went to hitchike back to the city, there were no buses here. There were no cars either. I waited for three hours to travel 6 miles. I’d thought, if the hitchiking was easy, that I might follow the way of the thumb all the way back to Raska, only 200 miles north of here. But after those couple of hours on empty roads I plumped for buses all the way. Short minibus into Shköder, coach to Podgorica, Montenegro, coach to Novi Pazar, southern Serbia, arriving at 10.30pm, 14 hours after I stepped up to the side of the road in rural Albania. 

I’m here now and I’m taking a couple of days rest. I may not have been walking this last month but I haven’t exactly been resting and this journey from Holland, as described above, has not been relaxing at all. 

When I set off again I’m ready to immerse myself in this journey. No more stop starts, complex transport or interesting diversions. I have an entire year before I need to be anywhere else and I’m ready to spend it walking. I want to sink into the rhythm of the journey, to wake up every day and know that I will be walking, I want to live a solo purpose: to cross land.

Occasionally, I will think of Tom, out there, pacing calmly on.

One thought on “From UK to Serbia, via Albania part 2: meeting Tom

  • July 23, 2019 at 8:33 pm
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    Wow! Openly honest, deep examinations…vivid evocations. You are a brilliant observer / writer! Thank you as always for sharing your journey……

    Reply

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