“Hey, I was in Podgorica last week, what do you need to know?”
Robert, a tall, fidgety English guy in his late thirties, came over to introduce himself and join our conversation. I was trying with little luck to get information from the non-English speaking owner of our guest cottage about the capital of Montenegro.
“What’s it like?” I asked. “Is it worth stopping for?”
“No, mate,” he answered, “there’s really nothing there. If you’re heading for Albania, you’re better off going straight to Shkoder. The border crossing’s pretty easy at Hani i Hotit.”
“How are you traveling?” I asked.
“Right there, mate.” He gestured toward a weary-looking mountain bike parked on his little porch. “I’ve travelled 25,000 kilometers on that bloke. Want to see it?”
“Absolutely” I said.
He pointed out all his improvised fixes and added features, including a small solar charger.
“What’s the charger for?” I asked.
“My cell-phone.” he replied.
“What’s the cell-phone for?” I asked.
“Well, every now and then I like to call my wife and son back in Manchester to check in occasionally.” he replied matter-of-factly.
“You have a wife and kid and you’re riding around like this for two or three months?” I asked, a little surprised.
“I need to do it, mate.” he said as he constantly moved and fidgeted, puffing impulsively on his hand-rolled cigarette.
“Why?” I asked.
“I just love travelling, mate, I do it for the energy.” he laughed as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I do this every year. I don’t really have a job back in the U.K. so I have some freedom.”
He reached under the small patio table and lifted up a large, plastic bag and set it on the floor in front of me.
“I also make some money doing this.”
I immediately thought he was dealing in hashish or something. I opened the bag and saw a tightly compacted mass of tobacco, about the size of a beach ball. I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculous sight of it.
“In the UK, cigarettes have become very expensive and I have a list of friends and customers who buy all the cigarettes I can roll.” he laughed as he picked up his cigarette roller. “Here, watch this.”
He carefully laid out a small patch of tobacco in the little tray, closed the tray, pushed a lever and out came a brand new cigarette, complete with filter.
“I paid 50 euros for this bag and I can make about 2,000 euros when I re-sell it all.”
“Pretty good markup!” I said.
As he puffed and fidgeted, he started telling me about some of his travels, frequently tapping me nervously on the side of my shoulder as if to assure himself I was giving him my full attention.
“But doesn’t the long travelling get expensive?” I asked.
“I’ve been gone two months”, he said, “and this is the first night I’ve slept with a roof over my head. You see that up there?” he said as he pointed up to the top of a high mountain in the distance. “That’s where I slept two nights ago. I have a hammock and every night I just pull off into the woods, find a couple nice trees, and string it up. It’s actually pretty comfortable. When I ride through a little village, people always gather round to look at my kit and someone always offers me something to eat. I’ll tell you something, mate, people everywhere are amazing. They are always kind, always helpful. I don’t go out begging but I never go hungry.”
I looked again at Robert’s tired mountain bike, then back at him. “What do you know about northern Albania?” I asked. “Have you heard about the blood feuds in the mountains up there?”
Albanian blood feuds are a peculiar tradition in that region, dating back to the 15th century. Some powerful chieftain in the area instituted a detailed code, called the kanun, of about 1200 rules covering everything from marital relations to finances and village disputes. The highest virtues, it proclaims, are honor and hospitality. If a man murders another man, the victim’s male family members are bound by honor to kill the murderer or any other adult male member of the murderer’s family. If there are none, he must go to the extended family to find some adult male to kill in order to preserve the family’s honor. In other words, if you kill someone, you put a lot of people at risk. The accused murderer is entitled to protection at a “safe house”, usually his own home. As long as he stays inside, he’s protected by the kanun. But if he steps foot outside his house, he becomes fair game. There are instances where the victim’s family members have moved and live within eyesight of the safe house. They keep vigil so they can shoot the man if he dares to step outside. This terrifying stalemate can go on for years.
“That’s amazing you mentioned that, mate. You know, I met this guy at a cafe in Prizren [Kosovo] who said he actually killed a man because of that. He said “I had no choice. If I didn’t do it, my entire family would be humiliated. My family would be ruined. I had no choice.”
“Jesus”, I said, “how did he do it?”
“With a knife, man!” he blurted out, still unable to believe it himself.
“Jesus”, I repeated. I dropped the subject. I didn’t want to hear any more details.
Robert regaled me for another hour or so with lots of great travel stories. At one point, he said “Hey, mate, I’ve got a favor to ask you.” He walked over to one of his bags and pulled out a large, rolled-up, heavily-creased piece of cardboard. As he carefully unrolled it on the table he said “You know, my sister in the UK just had a baby and she told me ‘Robert, you just better be back before he’s born.’ Well, I didn’t make it back so I made this. I really wanted to make something special for the lad. His name is Sebastian.”
It was an over-sized greeting card filled with about a hundred different written messages from people he had met along the way.
“Look”, he said, here’s one from South Africa, here’s one from Turkey, one from Algeria” as he carefully pointed each one out. The card was a mess from all the re-rolling and packing and the cover had a pointless picture of a bunch of yellow ducklings.
“What’s with the ducks?” I asked.
“I don’t know, mate”, he laughed, “It was the cheapest, biggest card I could find.”
As I read the messages to Sebastian, I began to realize that this was indeed Robert’s gift. Robert’s world was chance encounters with random strangers, reaching out to anyone who would listen to him, living for those moments of joyful communication wherever he might find them. He keeps his memories but little else. These spontaneous encounters are Robert’s stock-in-trade. They’re his currency. I kept reading and found myself suddenly moved at the warmth of some of the messages and at Robert’s determination to make Sebastian a real gift. In fact, he was giving Sebastian everything he had.
I looked up at Robert, fidgeting and smoking. He was waiting for my reaction to his card. “Robert”, I said, ” this is the best birthday gift I’ve ever seen”. And I meant it. “This one’s right from the heart, isn’t it?” I said, feeling a little emotional abouth the whole thing myself.
He said quietly “I just hope he likes it. I hope my sister forgives me.”
Before I wrote my own message, I read aloud one from Maki in Nigeria: “Dear Sebastian, I don’t know you yet, but I’m glad you are here.”
I don’t know you yet, but I’m glad you are here. There’s something profound there. I just wish I could put my finger on it.