30 September 2006

Time for a Change in Life!!

I can easily recall the exact moment when my life was changed forever!

It was a very nice day in May 2005 sitting on a lounge, basking in the hot Greek sun. Leigh had asked me if I wanted to accompany her and her family on their trip to Halkidiki. For those who don’t know, northern Greece has three peninsulas sticking into the blue Aegean which resemble fingers. People identify which finger they intend to visit. Those who want action - lots of hotels and tourists – will go to the first finger called Kassandra. Those who prefer the quiet and far less developed atmosphere will go to the middle finger called Sithonia. The last finger is reserved for religious believers in the Orthodoxy and within that group they must be male.

Kassandra is very windy on the western side but I was sitting on a lounge located on the non-windy eastern side of the finger and it was heaven as far as I could tell. I woke up early and made my way to the beach to read a book and relax. I hadn’t been to the sea for a few months and I do love the beach, even if it is just a sea without waves – basically a huge lake. After a while Leigh and her daughter came down and join me. Leigh had a camera and took my picture.

About two weeks later is that exact moment when my life changed. Leigh handed me a picture. It was of me that day on the beach in Halkidiki. I looked at the image in the picture and immediately realized that I had to change my life. I had become a middle aged over weight white male. I was shocked. From that moment I set a course towards getting back to a reasonable weight – 175 pounds. For the official record, I weighed 209 pounds.

I set forth with a plan – or should I say a concept of what I would do. I decided to RUN. I was playing European football at the Army stadium in Skopje and it was surrounded by a track. I also decided to drink diet sodas instead of sugared ones. I made a plan to eat better and to cook more food at home instead of eating at the many restaurants of Skopje. I also resolved to take vitamins and simply lead a healthier life.

Two days after seeing the picture I went to the track to start running. What a laugh that was. I ran half way around the track and then walked the remainder of the lap. I could feel the loose fat and atrophied muscles moving up and down as I lumbered my way stride by painful stride. I actually wondered in my head whether I was so far gone that a heart attack was just around the corner. That first day I ran a total of two laps and I was a complete wreck.

I returned the next day determined to make a go of this change in my life. I resolved to go further everyday, if only a tiny bit. I also decided to do sit-ups. I would do 100 sit ups every day I ran. After two months of running I could tell there was a difference in my body but I also began to find that running was incredibly boring. Before running I would resolve to think about a certain thing and work it out. I would think about Macedonia Connects and the work that needed to be done. I would process the hell out of one subject each day I ran.

I went back to the USA in August and I bought an Apple iPod. I thought it would help me run. When I returned to Macedonia I ran with the iPod and it revolutionized the entire experience. I started to download technology-oriented podcasts and I would listen to them as I ran. The laps became easier by September but I had to run through knee pains, shin splints and blisters to get where I was. I was now running nearly 4 miles when I ran. I found that I couldn’t do it everyday so I adjusted my schedule to every other day and both days of the weekend. I also decided that I would set aside time for me and make certain that I left work by 4:30 so I could run. I told my staff and I told Washington that between 4:30 and 6:00 I was unavailable. I was actually taking care of myself.

My running maxed out at 5 miles per day which took me almost exactly one hour to complete. Instead of doing sit-ups I was doing crunches – 1,000 of them at a time. I saw a profile of a 78 year old golfer who was doing 1,000 crunches a day and I figured that if he could do it I could do it.

I ran no matter what the weather was doing. I ran in the rain. I ran in the snow. I ran on the snow. I ran when the temperature was -29C. I ran every other day for 16 months. I got used to drinking diet soda. I continue to wrestle with eating the right foods. I do try. I do eat junk food, but I limit myself when doing so. My body is different. The fat is gone from my face, my legs and my arms. I am stilling taking vitamins. I have that picture and when I look at it, or other pictures of me from that time, I am always a little shocked. As of the point when I am writing this I am down to 170 pounds which is 77kg for Europeans who might be reading this. I lost 39 pounds over those 16 months. I never tried to lose it all in one week, one month, or some short term period of time. I knew this was a long term project and my life, to some degree, was in the balance.

The funny side of this has been the fact that I am able to wear clothes which were tailored for me exactly 23 years ago. I haven’t been able to fit into them for the past 13 years. It is as if I had a whole new set of clothes waiting for me.

The best side is that I love to run. It makes me happy. I find peace in doing it. I look forward to hearing This Week in Tech, Car Talk or the Don and Mike Show – which are just a portion of the podcasts I download each day.

I am no poster boy for weight loss, but the lesson I have learned from all of this appears to be that one must think about doing a little bit over a long period of time. It took years to put on the weight and it took time to take it off. I am also no poster boy because I am a sucker for Cherry-Vanilla ice cream and can finish off a half gallon in two days. When I do, I make certain that I run extra long the next couple of days.

13 September 2006


When I awake every morning I do so with a strong belief that this day is going to be a good day and that I will accomplish the given tasks for the day before I once again fall asleep. I am an optimist. I believe in the innate goodness of people but I am pragmatic enough to protect myself from those who would seek to own something which isn’t theirs. I believe in the fair world concept which postulates that there is fairness inherent in everyday life and if one day something doesn’t go my way it will all even out over the next week, month, or year. I believe in love and the simple act of holding hands. I love the smell of fire coming from a fireplace but I hate the fact that it is getting colder when I smell that smell. I believe in hard work being its own reward, but I also hope that the company for which I am doing those hard labours notices my work. I actually believe in government, although the underpinnings of this belief system is being shaken to its core. I believe that we make the life we want and if we are unhappy we should be able to remake it – somehow. I believe that the greatest gift I will leave behind me is Julian and Isabel. I remember how I never wanted children but the moment they were each placed in my arms I realized that I was so very wrong. I love the ocean and the smell one smells when one is near it. I have never liked mountains because they just got in the way of getting to the sea. I have come to love running simply because when I am done with my run my body feels so alive despite the aches and pains two hours later. I love computers. To me computers are so simple and easy. There is not a thing about them which I do not understand. Unfortunately for me I grow easily frustrated when dealing with people who don’t understand computers and I need to work on that. Most people don’t realize that I never took a single computer class in my life but I have taught them. Computers have been the boat on which I have perched myself for the past 25 years, taking me around the world and back again. I love the work I did in Macedonia where I played a role in making it the first all wireless country in the world. I played a small role in changing an entire country. There were several times during the past two years when I cried just because I was overwhelmed by the good we were able to bring to this small landlocked country. I love traveling but I hate exploring. I love just sitting on a park bench in a new city and simply watching the people – I can do it for hours. I hate getting lost more than anything in the world. I have been to 90 countries but sometimes I can get lost in my own backyard. There are so many things which make me who I am. I believe myself to be a good person but I would never say those words aloud. The other day someone told me that I was very good at what I do – one of the best – but I am just too humble to believe that I am anything more than a simple person who learned to use computers. Sometimes I grow depressed and get to the point where I lose this sense of optimism and all the things which make me feel positive about life. When this happens I know I need to pull myself out of it. I do so by calling friends and family. I force myself to the track to run or to play soccer. Slowly the optimism returns and I can sleep that night and wake up the next morning refreshed and believe that this day will be better than the day before and that I will accomplish all the things I need to accomplish.

27 August 2006

Where in the World is Cerna Goro?

The cement has barely dried on the new sidewalk. The new bridge is spectacular and stands almost as a piece of art dedicated to a city in the newest micro-state in the world. Elections are 2 weeks away and all the work must be evident to the electorate so that the powers that be – the politicians – remain in favour, in office, and in power. I am talking about Podgorica in the country of Cerna Goro which in English is pronounced Montenegro. It only dawned on me recently why the abbreviation for Serbia is SCG – Serbija Cerna Goro. I cannot be blamed for not knowing this since Serbian isn’t my language. Turns out that now that Montenegro is a free country, they also have a new language called CernaGorska or Montenegrin. This is similar to the way three languages are spoken in Bosnia – Serbian, Croation and Bosnian. It all represents the further Balkanization of the Balkans.

Anyway, Podgorica is very different from Skopje. First, everything is either new or being refurbished here in Podgorica. I don’t have a clue where the money comes from – I guess the politicos saved it for a rainy day and, if so, it looks like its been raining for a while. There are buildings here which remind me of California architecture. In fact, we could be in Santa Barbara, San Diego or Huntington Beach and see similarly built structures with lots of glass, round winding curves and the wide array of the bright California color schemes.

It is different here also because the roads are being fixed up to look very nice. There is little refuse floating about on the side of the roads and the people certainly seem upbeat, more so than I witness in Macedonia on the whole.

The other, and most significant difference, is that this newest micro-state of 660,000 people has a coastline and might I say WHAT A COASTLINE. I have apparently now seen 90% of that coastline from the road which travels along the sea and what I saw was quite beautiful. The “Gold Rush” for land is on now that statehood has been assured by the popular vote to secede from their union with Serbia in early July. I hear that Russians and Brits are buying up all the best properties and that pricing are increasing by 5% per month. I have been asking whether it is too late to find a bargain and have been told that they are still out there but you have to search for them. That is the Gold Rush!

I had the joy of visiting a town called Kotor which sits on a large bay fed by the Adriatic Sea but seemingly miles inland. This town was a traditional walled city from the late 900’s and part of the Croat Kingdom. There was a church inside the walled city which celebrated its 1,000 year anniversary in 1926. The wall to this city snakes its way up at least 1500 feet to the top of a small mountain overlooking the bay and walled city. Apparently this city is a sister city to Dubrovnik which lies about 60 minutes north along the coast. The port of Kotor allows for large Cruise ships to visit deep into Montenegro through this vast fjord. I am certain that as Montenegro grows as a nation-state it will attract more people and more cruise ships. I imagine that the way of life in Kotor will change as it becomes addicted to a more viable tourism industry.

I am in Cerna Goro to see whether the work I did in Macedonia can be replicated here. This brings up the other differences between Macedonia. In terms of development years that Macedonia is about 3-4 years ahead of Montenegro. For all of Macedonia’s faults, it has adopted new telecom laws which made the creation of Macedonia Connects much easier to accomplish. Here, most of the laws, as far as I can tell, have been put in place to provide support to the elite few who have had money, controlled imports, and protected the few businesses capable of surviving in a small nation-state – one of which is the telecom provider.

In 5 years Montenegro will be well on its way to being invited to become a member of the EU. It will endure many political and regulatory reforms during this period of time in order to gain entry into the EU. People will spend millions if not billions of dollars transforming this country from an isolated dot on the map to an Adriatic hot spot frequented by the type of people who are attracted to the new and unexplored. Visit here soon before the simple qualities of what they have now are gone. Money and greed have a way of destroying simple pleasures in favour of the gaudy.

19 August 2006

Travel Stories - My Best One!

We were standing in line waiting to get to the airline ticket counter. We, in this case, would be me and the young couple standing ahead of me. I could sense their excitement as I eavesdropped in on their conversation. Their backpacks were brand new and neatly matched. I heard little tidbits about Germany, England and New Zealand. I heard him say how cool it was that they would celebrate December 24th twice after crossing the International Date Line as they returned home to America. My interest piqued, I decided to say something about how slow the line was progressing. So where are you going I asked? The response was that they were about to embark on a 4 and ½ month adventure of a lifetime. They were taking an around the world trip.

We stood online for nearly 1 and ½ hours that day at the airport discussing travel. They wanted to know about Hong Kong, China, Thailand and eastern Europe. I was able to tell them so many things during the time we had together. The joy of traveling is being able to share short stories about having been to a particular city somewhere in the world.


I was traveling in southern Uganda from Kampala. The ride was about 3 hours long and I had a lot of soda during the ride. We finally arrived at the Primary Teachers College in Bushenyi. There we were met by a staff member and I asked whether I could use the bathroom. They asked me to sit in the outer hallway across from the President’s office. After 10 minutes the urge to relieve myself grew stronger and I said to the staff person that I was willing to go out into the bushes if using the bathroom was a problem. They looked at me rather oddly and told me that the President would be there any moment. Another 10 minutes passed followed by another 5 and finally he walks in – the President. He shakes my hand and says he is pleased to have me visit the school and he then led me to his bathroom.

It didn’t take long for me to finish my business. I washed my hands, wiped them off using the towel I found on the rack. I exited the bathroom and thanked them kindly. The staff person and the President had an odd look on their face. I asked the staff person what was wrong? He looked at me and said "you didnt take a bath". It then dawned on me – BATH ROOM. They wanted to know why I asked for a BATH ROOM if I didn’t want to take a bath. I asked what I should have said? "Shortcall" he said, "if you need to urinate you say short call and the other one is long call."

It is the collection of travel stories, and a venue in which they can be shared, that makes travel worthwhile. I really loved being able to tell this couple little stories about some of the places they would be visiting. I also told them how hard it was going to be for them. With small backpacks I suggested that their level of frustration will grow quickly as they accumulate items with no place to put them. I gave them my business card and asked them to write to me when they have been on their trip for three months. I quipped that by then they will either decide to never ever travel again or they will, like me, have the travel bug and live the rest of their lives seeking out new adventures and looking for an opportunity to tell people their travel stories.

01 August 2006

An Amazing President of the United States of America

I know that what I am about to write has nothing to do with meandering my way around the world but I just cannot pass this story up. I read an article about how some drug addicts are using heroine laced with the pain killer called fentanyl.

Fentanyl - an opiate used legally in anesthesia and for some cancer patients - is cheaper than heroin and 80 times more potent than morphine. That makes it an appealing additive for heroin distributors.

So what’s happening is that some druggies are dying because they are unprepared for the overwhelming affects associated with fentanyl and they overdose and die. There is a debate going on around the United States within municipal and State health agencies whether to make Narcan available to drug users in case they do overdose.

After more than 400 deaths nationwide from heroin laced with the painkiller fentanyl, some needle exchange programs are giving addicts prescriptions for a drug to keep on hand to halt an overdose. The antidote - naloxone, which is sold under the brand name Narcan - can save the life of someone who might not call 911 for fear of prosecution, treatment providers say.

As I see it, there is a way to stop people from dying by distributing Narcan to drug users. But that is met with the following statement from the White House –

"We don't want to send the message out that there is a safe way to use heroin," said Jennifer DeVallance, a spokeswoman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which sponsored a symposium Friday on the fentanyl problem in Philadelphia.

So what is the alternative? I guess it is ok for drug users to die of an overdose instead of giving them a chance to live. We wouldn’t want to err on the side of life for people who use drugs.

However, our President would prefer to destroy an embryo instead of providing researchers with an opportunity to find a cure for some of the most deadly diseases which kill millions of people each year. It is also apparent that he has no love for drug addicts and would prefer that they simply fall asleep and never wake up again.

29 July 2006

Country 89 – Latvian Girls Love Flowers

In April I detailed my momentary infatuation with Estonia. I had never been anywhere in the world where I felt quite as comfortable, including the USA, but I knew it couldn’t last simply because the WINTER is so ferocious and debilitating and I love the SUN. In visiting Latvia I returned to a Baltic country and for the first time in my life I experienced the barely ever setting sun. I have to tell you that I love the sun. I have great memories of playing stickball late into the summer evenings back in the USA – let’s say as late as 9:30 when you finally couldn’t see the ball being pitched to you. In Latvia, and Sweden as well, it is bright way beyond even that. There is enough sun to play stickball as late as 11:30 just in case some American kids wish to play on the streets of Stockholm or Riga.

Anyway, getting back to Latvia, I have to admit that Riga is every bit as charming as Tallinn within the old city. There is construction everywhere you look in Riga. My thought is that Riga had further to progress than did Estonia but I don’t know if that really is the case.

What I found interesting during my visit to Latvia was that these were the people who, as part of the Soviet empire, were intent on killing Americans. I explained to one Latvian that as a child I would go to the basement of my school and sit facing the wall and fold myself into a big ball – all based on the evils of the Soviet and their desire to rule to world. This same person showed me a picture of his mother taking shooting instruction based on the same concept – the evil USA and its intent to destroy the Soviet.

Clearly these people were as interested in having a good life then as they are now. I have long learned that parents simply want to raise their children in happiness and pray that they will succeed beyond their wildest hopes and dreams. I am certain that the Latvian’s wanted for their children in the 1950’s what I want for my children now. The lesson for me is that politicians breed distrust. We both laughed about the absurdity of it all.

What I also discovered in Latvia is that flowers dominate. Everyone brings flowers to give as a present. As I arrived at the airport in Riga I walked past throngs of people awaiting their loved ones and they all seemed to have flowers in hand. I asked what that was about and I was told that all Latvian girls love flowers. Next time I will arrive with flowers in my hand.

14 July 2006

Being Part of Something Big in Macedonia

Please take a moment to watch this video. I was part of something much bigger than myself. Our project changed a nation, albeit a small nation.


Everyone should strive once in their life to be part of the greater good beyond their own personal needs.

My Journey to Atilan

When I decided to start writing BLOGS I did so with a belief that each story would either be humorous, or at least tell a story about the place I was visiting. While I found Guatemala very interesting and beautiful, the story below doesn’t really say very much. All I really did was work so there was a paucity of opportunity to find fun. The highlight, if there was one, was sitting in a Mexican restaurant watching the Mexico v. Argentina world cup match. I totally predicted the final score of 2-1 in favour of Argentina but the best part was seeing the nationalism play out right there in that restaurant. It was as if the pride and stake of each nation was on the shoulders of the 22 men on the field. Mexican’s would rise in anticipation as their striker moved the ball forward only to be countered by Argentine fans who are pleased that the attack has been repelled. The World Cup is over and Italy won. My favourites were eliminated one by one in painful succession but that is grist for another story.

The Road to Atitlan…

As I write I am sitting in the back, the very back, of a Chevy Tahoe being driven by a USAID driver who is taking us back to the other side of what has to be one of the most beautiful lakes on the face of this earth. I have been duly informed by one of my travel companions that Lake Atitlan is listed as one of a thousand sites one must see prior to the end of his lifetime. So here I am the 6th passenger in a 5 passenger Tahoe traveling on a bumpy and mostly winding road with computer on my lap looking out the window on a rainy and foggy day.

My journey started yesterday as we left the capital and drove several hours to the small lakeside town of Panajachel. I was dreading this trip only because I dislike not having ready access to the Internet. The purpose of this trip is built around that exact issue – how can USAID play a role in providing Internet access to the schools, health centres and residents of Lake Atitlan. I enjoy being the “Johnny Appleseed” of Internet connectivity without ever thinking about how maybe paradise isn’t ready for Internet access. Such thoughts rarely enter my thought processes – for better or worse I am a foot soldier in the spreading of the Internet.

The drive from Guatemala City was very scenic but nothing along the way prepared me for the beauty of Lake Atitlan and the town of Panajachel. We arrived very close to dusk but enough light to see the Lake and the four volcano’s. In fact, there are three visible volcanoes which dominate the skyline but the fourth is actually the remnant cone in which the lake sits. One can only imagine, given the size of the lake, that the volcano must have shot up at least 20,000 feet or more above where I was standing at the edge of the water. The three remaining volcanoes sit at 12,500, 11,500 and 10,500 feet and their footprint is no where near the collective size of the lake. It must have been quite an explosion.

The other beautiful thing about Panajachel is the wide array of fabrics produced by the indigenous natives. I am so attracted to the orange, tans, purples and basic fall colours of the fabrics. It reminds me of the fabrics I have seen in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. It almost seems as if the people of these countries have purchased their goods from the same manufacturer – but obviously this cannot be the case.

It turned out that my fears of lack of internet access turned out to be unfounded as the hotel in which I stayed had substantial connectivity enough to feed my incessant need to be connected to the Internet.

There were many things about Guatemala that make it a very nice place to visit. The food is fantastico!! The people were incredibly friendly.
Well I left Guatemala two weeks ago and was hoping to finish this blog while still there but work, and other circumstances, all conspired to derail my plans. Suffice to say,

04 June 2006

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

That anyone is the world would care about listening to anything I have to say always shocks me. I am, above all, a very humble person who stumbled into the profession of computers at the perfect moment in time back in the very early 80’s. The DNA inside me lined up correctly to make me compatible with computer technology. Perhaps it is an extension of the inventiveness of my Grandfather that was transferred into me. All I know is that I understand computers and more importantly, I understand how to apply technology to make certain everyday things happen more efficiently. Computers help me make order from chaos.

So here I am sitting in a room overlooking the one tourist attraction in Macedonia – Lake Ohrid. This room sits on the top of an otherwise lackluster hotel but is situated in such a way that all you do see is the Lake outside the windows and the mountains on the other side of the lake which is Albania. The tremendous rain from last night has left us with a spectacular day. The cumulus clouds look like cotton candy floating in the air. The sun is brightly shining and the water is differently illuminated by the sun coming through the gaps between the clouds.

Off to the right side of the lake I can see a Castle. An honest to God Castle built in the 3rd century BC around which the old city of Ohrid is situated. The Castle is in perfect condition and it provides stark testimony to the fact that they built things to last back then. Below the Castle is an Orthodox Church which was built prior to 1058. In the States if something was built in the late 1600’s we make it a national treasure – In Macedonia something built in the 1600’s is considered recent architecture.

All of the sudden I am introduced and I need to stop looking out the Window.

…”Mr. Strachan will now speak to us about his project called Macedonia Connects…”

I am on! This is probably the 40th presentation I have made about Macedonia Connects in the past 12 months. I have grown more comfortable with each presentation but I start them all out the same way…

“I want to thank you all for taking time to hear this presentation. I am always amased that people are here to listen to what I have to say”

I make this statement as much to set myself at ease as to have a good opening line.

“Today I want to tell you about a GREAT project called Macedonia Connects which is responsible for making Macedonia the first all wireless country in the World”

And so I progress through slide after slide of my powerpoint presentation hoping to hit the most important points each time.

“…What Macedonia Connects represents is a successful public private partnership…”

I get to the slide which shows the ice covered mountains of Macedonia and people usually laugh when they see the title of the slide – “Technical Challanges”

“…While this project started as a connectivity for schools activity it grew into a national connectivity solution…”

I am on auto pilot but I am not hitting all of the points I need to make. I sense that I am rushing through it. I pause and I look out the window and see a boat going past and wish I was on the boat.

“Macedonia Connects has received tremendous publicity including the Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Business Week…”

I am almost done at this point. 30 minutes already and it felt like 5. My shirt is getting wet as I perspire during my presentation. Don’t let the audience see you sweat!!

“I will close by saying that my work in Macedonia has been an amasing experience for me and it has been a great project. I believe that our results can be replicated in other countries and I look forward to working on future projects like Macedonia Connects…are there any questions?”

WHEW…it is over, people rarely ever ask questions and when they do they are softball questions.

“…can you please tell us what elements need to be in place in a country before a Macedonia Connects type project can be executed?”

WOW, now that’s a good question. I have an answer. The answer creates more questions. We actually have an exchange of ideas going on here. Time is quickly passing. Question after question and I hit them out of the ballpark, at least I think I do…”

“If there are no other questions for Mr. Strachan I would now like to thank him for his very informative and enlightening presentation. It certainly shows that activities like this are needed throughout the Balkans region”

I heard applause and we go to a break. I just want to head to the bathroom and people come up to me asking for my presentation to be placed on their thumb drive. Some people hand me their business card while others want to ask me questions. I felt like someone with an important message that people wanted to hear.

Within 5 minutes my eyes were on the lake and the beautiful day. My performance was over. I was a little more confident in myself.

Perhaps next time I will simply start the presentation with “Today I want to tell you about a GREAT project called Macedonia Connects which is responsible for making Macedonia the first all wireless country in the World”

01 June 2006

Kosovo – Another Asterisk

I started my blog as a way to share stories about the places I travel and to allow my children to see what I am doing when I am away from them. I have been to Kosovo many times in the past 2 years but decided to write about it after making this latest visit. Nothing humerous happened to me in Kosovo during my two days. Instead, I spent time presenting the work I did in Macedonia and trying to see whether it can be duplicated in Kosovo.

It would be folly to try and understand the complexity of Kosovo unless you suffer from masochistic behaviour and have a spare 20 years to learn it all. What I do understand is that Serbia and Yugoslavia ignored it in a similar way the Russians appear to have ignored Chechnya and hoped it would simply disappear. That ignorance and then outright hostility has brought Kosovo and its residents a great deal of suffering. I walked past the government building where at least 50 pictures of the “missing” are hung. Men and boys long gone but still remembered and most likely buried in some anonymous grave which will never be uncovered. This is a country where Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Wesley Clark have streets named in their honour. They love America because it alone stood against the Serbians desire to seemingly destroy all of Kosovo in the name of ethnic cleansing.

I am writing this as I sit in an internet café in Pristina. Kosovo is the neighbouring land to Macedonia where I have been working and living for nearly 2 years. This Internet café says a lot about Kosovo, at least to me, because I am only 77km away from Skopje where Internet access is ubiquitous yet here it is limited to Cafés and businesses and not consumers. Kosovo is an occupied country being protected by NATO against Serbia. Now that Montenegro has voted to opt out of its relationship with Serbia it leaves Kosovo as the last remaining puzzle piece in former cluster called Yugoslavia. Pristina is a bustling city of nearly 200,000 people in a country of between 1.9 and 2.4 million. It is a poor nation by all standards surrounded by wealthier former Yugoslav Republics. If ever there was a place seeking legitimacy it is Kosovo.

I have been to Kosovo a number of times mostly to catch a flight since they are considerably cheaper than flying from Macedonia. I want to call Kosovo a very small country but at present it is neither a country nor part of Serbia – although I am certain that the Serbs don’t share the same conclusion. Everyone is waiting for the “Kosovo Issue” to be resolved. This means the official sanctioning of it as the newest member state of Europe.

When you talk to people working here most are not positive about the prospects for Kosovo once it becomes a country. Were it not for aid programmes and remittance from the Kosovo Diaspora this country would have nothing other than people who have learned to endure long suffering. I am left to wonder why people hold onto a place which offers so little yet they are willing to die for it.

I am back in Macedonia and I shared some of the stories I heard in Kosovo about the Albanian population of Macedonia and Kosovo. For instance, Skopje used to hold the largest number of ethnic Albanians in the world. The problem was that I shared it with a Macedonian audience and I basically opened a beehive. The tensions between the two ethnicities runs so deep that a simple statement about the relative size of the Albanian population in Macedonia was able to elicit scorn and anger. As I recall, the person who told me the many stories about Albanians was adamant in his support for his ethnicity as well.

I wish that for my own learning experience I could place the person I met in Kosovo in the same room as the person I know here in Macedonia and just listen to their interaction. I would ask HOW WILL YOU EVER RESOLVE THIS? When two people, two religions, two ethnicities claim the same land and have a totally opposed view of history how does anyone ever hope to resolve their differences? I have a greater appreciation for the problems in the Middle East because I see an absolute similar struggle here in Macedonia except no one is dying for their beliefs – at least right now they aren’t.

I have one other observation from my time living here - no country can be run affectively in two languages. While biligualism is a hallmark of Europe there must be an agreed upon single language which is used to transact government business and the education system. Here in Macedonia so much is tied to Macedonian/Orthodoxy and Albanian/Muslim that they are too blind to recognise that the best way to run a country is in a single language. In the case of Macedonia it needs to be Macedonian. People who don't learn to speak Macedonian will be left behind within the national economy leading to uneeded poverty.

This is a lesson that America is learning now. I have always been a supporter of biligualism in America but there can only be one working language otherwise there will be people trapped on the other side of the language barrier and that often results in poverty.

21 May 2006

Homage to My Daughter Isabel

I just spent 6 full days with my daughter Isabel in France and I long for more. It was her 10th birthday the day she left for Paris and this was her birthday present – a trip to Paris to be with me. She arrived early in the morning and I was so happy to see her that I cried. Belle cried too but for other reasons – she didn’t like the airline food and had decided to avoid it and that upset her. We rode a bus to the train station and then took multiple trains back into Paris and our hotel. This is the second time Belle has been to Paris. She was 4 when she made her previous visit and over the course of our 6 days together I learned that she had incredibly sharp memories of that trip. I was worried that she might forget THIS never imagining that she has a clear recall of a trip she made when she was 4. It is clear to me now that she will remember this trip for the rest of her life.

Within minutes of her arrival Belle’s first request was to ride a double decker carousel which she remembered from her last visit. She told me where she thought it was and we found it at the park in front Sacre Couer in Montmartre. She rode it three times and was quite pleased.

The next thing we did was go to the Bateau Mouche for a water tour of Paris. The best part of the ride was when Belle crawled up into my lap and I held her as we both fell asleep for a large portion of the ride. Cost: 8 Euro - Experience: Priceless

The rest of our time is now a blur of metro, TGV and bus rides. While she was hesitant to ride her first metro Belle soon became a skilled “metro surfer” asking me if we could use metro instead of walking a few blocks. She enjoyed trying to ride without holding the rail while I was always reminder her to do just that – HOLD ON. She loved opening the subway and bus doors. She loved walking with me, which we did a lot, and she always either held my hand or my arm. She never strayed more than a couple of feet away from me.

We used bus 80 to get everywhere the metro didn’t take us and soon she started calling it buseighty finding the one word version funnier than my two word version. We joked about the talking GPS systems in the taxi cabs – TURN LEFT IN 100 METERS. As we were walking Belle would all of the sudden say TURN LEFT IN 1 METER and then walk into a wall to make me laugh – I DID!!

We went clothes shopping and she seemed so at ease as we found bargains for t-shirts, skirts and pants at the Monoprix and Okaido. She wasn’t at ease when she tried on the most amazing pink cololured dress which fit her perfectly. The saleswoman doted on her and told her how beautiful she looked and as the salesperson walked away Belle said she didn’t want it. I didn’t press her then, or later, but from what I know of Belle she hates to be the centre of attention or to stick out at all. I presume that this is what she was thinking when she said NO.

We had the greatest time together. As she was waiting to leave at the airport, two women in front of us started talking to Belle. They realized that she was flying alone and they wanted to set her at ease. They told Belle that in terms of “Cool” that a trip to Paris with her father and buying clothes was absolutely the “Coolest thing a kid could do.” She smiled back at them but didn’t really respond.

It is hard to know what Belle was thinking. I haven’t spent a lot of time with her over the past 2 years and I really have been away so much of her life traveling from place to place. I know she misses me because she tells me so. At one point we were walking back to our hotel and Belle said to me “Daddy, you are famous…you are in newspapers and on TV and you are famous.” I thanked her for thinking I was famous but I explained that I really wasn’t famous at all. I don’t think she really understood. She had delivered to me an article which featured me and the work I was doing in Macedonia. My work is what has always taken me away from her.

I was left wondering what she will think of me when she turns 20. Will she still think I am famous or will she resent the fact that I was gone for so much of her life?

As she left me at the airport I told her that I loved her endlessly and will miss her very much. She didn’t realize that I watched her until she disappeared never looking back to see if I was there. I cried then as I am crying now.

02 May 2006

Egypt - 2001

I am riding on the train between the two cities after having spent 24 hours in Alexandria, or Alex as it is called by Egyptians. In my ears I am hearing the CD-ROM soundtrack from The Choir, a BBC production. As I look out the window, I am seeing land that has been continuously tilled for the past 3000 years, if not more. Added to the landscape are power lines, roads, and the rails I am riding upon, but the way of life has probably not changed much over time. Prior to leaving for Alex I had read that it was a city missing life, and beauty, sitting on the Mediterranean Sea. The author of that piece could not have been further from the truth. During my travels through Alex, which took me from one end to another, I saw a vibrant and colourful city full of well-dressed people walking from store to store. I was rather pleasantly surprised.

My day in Alexandria started when I was greeted at the railway station by my pre-arranged guide. He took me to my hotel, the Hotel Metropol where I was immediately impressed. When you walk in the front door, you are met with the smell of “clean”. I am one of the few people in the world who finds joy out of cleaning house. I recognise the smell of cleanliness and it was present in this hotel, more so than my much larger hotel in Cairo. In order to get to my floor I stepped onto an elevator that has been operational for at least 100 years. Barely large enough for three people, and located in the stair well, it ascends in slow but sure fashion. I feel as if I have stepped back in time. My room was more than adequate and very clean – not a spot of dirt or grime anywhere. I immediately go to the window and open it to see a sight I have never before seen, the Mediterranean Sea. There it is breaking against the sea wall. I also get my first view of the city crescent lying along the Sea for what seems like miles.

Not wanting to waste any time, I leave the hotel, with my guide, and we go off to the Citadel. This is a fortress built over 1400 years ago to protect the city from attack. Like the pyramids, it is a marvelous example of the enormous capabilities that the Egyptians have historically possessed. As I walked though the building, I tried to imagine what life must have been like when this building was first built. I also thought about how close I was to Turkey almost believing that if I just squinted a little I might be able to make out some details of the land. We left the Citadel and drove on the coastal road through town until we reached the Castle of King Farouk, the deposed king of Egypt. I will give it to Farouk; he certainly knew grandeur and how to locate the most beautiful site in Alexandria. The entire grounds are now full of hotels and special clubs intended for the richest people of Egypt, but during Farouks time, the majestic quality of his castle alone would have been astounding. President Mubarek presently uses the Castle to entertain important dignitaries. Just prior to leaving I walked along one of the many beaches on the grounds and touched the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Another Sea added to my minds collection. I have now touched all of the largest oceans in Seas in the world.

We left Farouks Palace just as he Sun was beginning to set. We drive back to the hotel where I freshened up a bit before leaving for a Seafood restaurant that had been recommended to me for both the view and the quality of the food – the Tikka Fish Market did not disappoint in either respect. When you arrive you asked to walk up to the fist counter and select your meal. The fish, shrimp, and crab are absolutely fresh. When I returned to the table, an assortment of appetizers, garden vegetables and breads were neatly lined up along the full extent of the dining table. My fish arrived very quickly, cooked to perfection. In all, the meal was absolutely perfect.

After dinner, my guide took me back to the Hotel and my evening was just beginning. For the next couple of hours I traversed the streets and back alleys of downtown Alexandria. The stores are different than in Cairo catering less to the needs of tourists. Unfortunately for me I was searching out purely tourist goods such as Papyrus and something for my children. I settled for a few Cokes along the way, and the joy are seeing Egyptians in their element.

The next day started late. I did something I have never done in my lifetime, I slept until Ten o’clock in the morning, I guess my walks through Alexandria tired me out. I went down to the free breakfast provided by the Hotel and it was as grand and opulent as the Hotel itself. My guide picked me up after the breakfast to deposit me at the train station for my return trip but not before stopping at a Tea Restaurant where we sat for awhile while he enjoyed the joys of the houka. While I did not partake, it was interesting to sit there and watch the people in the restaurant. I felt like I was part of a movie scene. I soon boarded the train back to Cairo leaving Alexandria behind vowing to return someday with my children.

Hungary - Country 87 with an Asterisk

The prime rule for being able to a country to the list of countries which you have visited is that you MUST leave the airport. That is the only real rule I have for this make believe contest and perhaps you must eat a meal when you leave the airport in order to say that you have really been in that country. Today I made a quick transit into and out of Hungary. As I exited my plane I saw the TRANSIT PASSENGERS sign pointing one direction and the Baggage Claim and Customs booth the other direction. I had 2 ½ hours between flights and could have easily left the airport and been able to count this as country 87 but I didn’t. Instead I went to the transit desk to reconfirm my onward passage as I had been told to do by the ticketing agent in Sweden. This is the same ticket agent who forgot to place a baggage claim sticker on the back of my ticket after retagging my bag for the third time. He made a joke about how his day wasn’t going well and it was still quite early. I asked him to place my Frequent Flyer number in my record and that took nearly 5 minutes to do only to find out that the airline does not participate in any Frequent Flyer programme.

So back to the Transit desk in Budapest.

This uniformed woman with short dark hair takes about 40 seconds before looking up at me as I am standing first in line. She asks for my ticket which I hand to her. She asks if I have any luggage checked and I respond in the affirmative. She asks for the baggage sticker. I look at my ticket and there is not one there. I know that the man in Sweden gave and retracted 2 baggage stickers but he must have not given me the 3rd one. I said to the woman that the person who processed my ticket in Sweden was having a bad day and that it was likely the case that the third time he did my baggage sticker he simply forgot to place it on my ticket.

Judging from the reaction of this woman upon telling her this story you would have thought I had just told her that something that completely undermined her basic understanding of life.

“Sir, there are three things expected of you when you travel – your passport, your ticket and you baggage claim ticket”

“Sir, I cannot imagine that someone who works at an airport would not provide you with a baggage sticker”

I asked her if she thought I was lying for some reason. I suggested that it was too early in the morning for her to be so angry at a random traveler.

“Sir, how can I help you if you don’t have a baggage ticket?”

I said the plane is just right there – we could see it – that I could go out and identify my baggage and most likely the sticker the gentlemen neglected to give me in Stockholm would be found.

“Sir, you may not go near the plane. Without the baggage ticket I cannot guarantee that the bag will make it to Skopje”

But the tags clearly had SKP on them I said. Wouldn’t they be routed to Skopje even though I didn’t have a baggage claim ticket?

“Sir, without this ticket we do not know whether your bags will make it to their final destination”

OK, OK!! I got it. Thank you for your help. I am sorry that I disturbed your day.

About 20 minutes later I went to the same desk but a different person. I explained the exchange with the previous person and asked whether there was anything I could do to assure that my luggage made it to Skopje. She walked over to the woman and they spoke for a moment and then returned to me.

“Sir, she told you that your bag would be fine and it would make it to Skopje what more are you seeking?”

WHAT? She never said that. You have to be kidding? Why would I come up to you and tell you something that someone told me if it were not true?

“Sir, I don’t know why you would do that!”

I went and sat down and decided against leaving the airport.

My bag arrived in Skopje and was the first bag on the carousel.

Hungary will always have an asterisk next to it.

HUNGARY* Country 87

(* = derailed by two helpful women at the transit desk)

30 April 2006

Estonia - Another Love

At the risk of being painfully redundant, I have fallen in love. I know that my heart is so easily won when it encounters culture, antiquity and beauty. My soul and heart need feeding, and the quickest way, at least to my heart, is the smell of the sea, bookstores, antique shops and lots of people watching. I never realize how accustomed I become to the lack of stimulation until I get to a place which is simply refreshing and startling – like that initial flash of the sun in your eyes when you open the curtains on a sunny day.

I can’t help but feel childish as my mind moves almost immediately from wondering what it would be like to live here to I can live here to I want to live here all in the space of a millisecond.

It would be an illicit love affair because we really aren’t made for each other – I crave the warmth of long sunny days. Neither of those exists for nearly 6 months of the year. This place is drenched in almost complete darkness on the 21st of December and only comes out of its slumber on May Day. But then to live those 6 months here when it is warm and the sun never truly sets on the 21st of June. My minds voice says that if only my body could grow accustom to the cold this new love could thrive. I can hear the negotiation going on inside me as one voice attempts to convince the other that I can change. Oh if only I could change. For this place I can change.

I wonder whether I am getting too old to fall in love with a place. I have just so many days ahead of me and perhaps they are better spent getting to know one place but my vagabond spirit always wins the day. There is always another country to visit and I do so love falling in love.

I love exploration and discovery. I love the new slate each place offers. I am uncertain as to the origins of my fascination with travel, but at this point in life it doesn’t seem to be abating. Some would have tired long ago while I appear to be just getting my second breathe.

My new love awaits me. Beckons me from outside my hotel window saying leave your computer and the confines of your starkly adorned modernistic hotel room and walk the cobbled streets of Tallinn past 13th century cathedrals and centuries old stain glass windows. Listen to the trolley cars pass you and look up to the deep azure blue cloudless sky and experience the cold on your cheeks. It is odd that this new love can woo me away from my keyboard when others often cannot. For now I am off to explore.

17 February 2006

First Blog - An introduction

What good is sound if there is no one there to hear it?

What good is beauty if there is no one there to view it?

What good is traveling the world if there is no one there to share it with?

I recently traveled to what turned out to be my 83rd country and, as is usually the case, I was there alone without anyone to share the sights and sounds. I resolved to establish a blog which could chronicle my trips, past, present and future, to serve as a companion with whom I can share.

I actually wrote an extensive piece 2 weeks ago and because my internet access was dodgy at the time, I loss the whole lot. I am an IT person and I knew better.

So write I will about the meandering travels of this wayward mind.

- Glenn