Tuesday, 6 November 2007

STEPH Dobra Voda to Muriljani 04/11/07

Today was a feast of a day for pilgrims.

We started early, packing tents wet with dew as we looked out over the ocean from the dry and stony paddock that served us well as a bed for the night.

We walked a country lane all day, even when we hit the main road; an autumn country lane, all the way to Albania.

We might have been anywhere on Earth, although not Australia.

We met strangers who waved us on our journey with smiles and pomegranates, old ones living the old ways - daughter of a new world, I cannot presume to know who they are and what they know.

Indeed, I am done with stories.

For they are not mine. And they are not real.

We accepted an invitation to sit awhile from a gorgeous picnic bench beneath a tree at a crossroads, which we took to mean 'time for backgammon'. There's nothing like stopping still for five minutes for life to come to us! In no time we were keeping company with cows drinking from the fountain, an old man herding goats, an old woman with a donkey.

We ate lunch in a village called Vladimir, where roadside hawkers lined up big yellow river fish on the patchy bitumen, so fresh they were still gulping for breath. And there, in a cafe that might have seated 500 (???!), we met Mun Sung Do, a Korean vet with a magnificent smile who is motorcycling to Morocco and then hopping oceans to ride South America from the bottom up.

All day, animals and humans going about their business.

And there in the distance, another unpainted canvas - a misty grey wash we know to be Albania.

Soon after leaving Dobro Voda we saw a green and white rocket that I presumed was a kids' playground and Ben, laughingly, thought was a Soviet rocket and, seriously, thought was maybe a grain silo. A couple of kms on and we saw another. Then another. It wasn't until we passed a graveyard with a model rocket on a tombstone, surrounded by headstones engraved with five pointed stars and sickle moons, that we realised our green and white rocket was a mosque steeple!

Talk about laugh at our ignorance!

No doubt about it, the east has come for us.

The road signs are now bilingual, we presume Albanian. More women are now wearing loose white headscarves. Hay carts loaded to the sky roll on by. Come to think of it, it's been a few days now since we last heard a church bell.

According to my map, Albania to its own is Shqiperia. Imagine that - Hrvatska, Crne Gore, Shqiperia . . . Croatia, Montenegro, Albania by any other names.

An old woman with a headscarf brings the lines on her face to life, meeting my eyes with a wonderful greeting that lights my heart as I pass.

Old men shake our hands.

The closer we get to the border, the more pleased people are to see us.

Albanija? they call. We nod and smile, yes we are going to Albania. They are delighted. We realise these are the people our newspaper might describe as 'ethnic Albanians', the ones whose lives are drawn on the other side of the line in the sand.

Just before the border crossing, a small child runs to the gate when he sees us, his mother and grandmother laughing as they urge him to greet the turtleback strangers. This touches me so deeply I could cry.

This morning, the politics of our times shelters my heart from theirs, the shrouded strangers for whom I will make a stand in my own country . . . but for whom, face to face on their own territory, the politics of fear unsettles me, nonetheless . . . a young man with dark hair, a dark beard and jagged features drives by in a rattly old red car and the reality of where I am startles the blood in my veins . . . my eyes meet those of a robed woman raking leaves and I wonder, who does she see?

Before long I understand - not just academically, but right through to my bones - the terrible, terrible injustice world leaders commit when they use fear to fortify their worldview and justify the unjustifiable.

This pilgrimage is a journey of reckoning for me, reconciling the unnamed tensions I hold in my bones with the staged and somewhat noble realities I hold to be true in my mind (as relevant to my inner, private world as to the manifest world without) . . . who I am, rather than who I want people to see . . . and who I am, rather than who people want me to be . . .

In allowing 'unacceptable' fears to surface, the ones I put on a brave and noble face to conceal, I am able to release the hold others have on my life, socially and politically.

And so I allow deeper truths to bypass the mind and sink into my bones . . . it's not a matter of what he is or who she is, but that collectively, the reality is they are not. We are not.


We. Are. Not. That.

We are the old men with laughing eyes.

We are the old women with smiling hearts.

We are the children who run to greet the strangers.

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