What are you doing again?

There’s a few more of you wondering along while I wander along this year compared to last, so perhaps it bears recapping what I’m doing, and in doing that maybe I’ll get a smidge (or smoot?) closer to putting across why I’m doing it, because more than a few of you still think I’m crazy.

The nominal goal is still the same: walk every overland inch from Bristol, England to Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India, my middle-name-sake and the last rest-stop on my pilgrimage to the Himalaya. Last year I managed about 147,250,393.7 such inches, but if I’m doing it right, avash (slowly), I wont manage quite so many this year. Put another way: if I walk as far and as fast this year as I did last year, I’ll have failed. That’s just the pedestrian goal though, the footing, there are other, higher goals for the walk — largest among them is a desire to practice looking closer.

In looking closer I want to pay more attention to languages, both spoken and unspoken, to the ways we all use and abuse language (and with it, each other). I want to look more closely at how I speak and write and how that effects what I’m able to say, who I can connect with, and how I am able to live. And I mean to better understand how what I do fits into who I am. I’ve been having spirited and spiriting conversations with a few people — Jaye most intensely — about identity, and my tendency to keep mine small1, eg. I don’t identify as a writer, I just write, but does that disinhibit or limit? Could I write/think better under different terms? I want to figure that one out.

I also want to use this looking closer to engage with photography more — to be less complacent, more attentive, and more generous with that effort — and to have a little more courage with it too (portraits! Kaur and I both find ’em heckin scary though). Ask more of it, share more of it, honour it with a little more rigour.

Most of all, this looking closer is about people. I’ve written before (Why the walk?) about belatedly figuring out that the missing pieces of me can only be found in others. It’d be impossible to talk about the changing shape of this walk without talking about Helen and Irfaan and their impact on me. But how to do it? How can I even begin to transmit the substance of that? How can I convey that no two people have inspired me more than they since Mizuki and Cy — and then how do I credit Mizuki and Cy for their part in this wander? (where by this wander I mean this life) — heaven only knows, so I’m partitioning that off. I won’t write it now because it means more to me than I know how to write, in public anyway, and I’m afraid to fail, but it will come. Avash. Until then, still walking, but with fewer contours, more conversations.

And now, a whistle stop tour of the first weeks of the second season of my third wander. If the ‘did this, then did that’ gets too boring, or the run-on-sentences, perplexingly-prodigious-parentheticals, and needless-alliteration (I resisted :P) get too much, just flick through the photos and go for a walk. mwah

After seven months of what might be best termed super-atrophy — wherein I shifted, virtually overnight, from walking unreasonable distances every day for five months straight, to the kind of idleness that even ol’ mate Berty might call excessive — the walk resumed on June 1st. It took all my energy to break free of the good-gravity in Pëllumbas, so I had none left to escape the orbit of the backpackers in Tirana and swiftly got (happily) stuck there for another four (five?) days.

But I did eventually pick up my footsteps, right where I left them on October 30th last year, on a nondescript stretch of road beside a bunker, just north of Lëpushë, in the far-north of Albania.

After a little bit of self-inflicted-maybe-nearly-fatal foolishness up on the ice pack in an off trail adventure, plus a little close-up photo shoot with a female Nose-Horned Viper (which, it turns out, is the most dangerous snake in Europe, though she seemed very nice) I made it to Theth, had a cheers and chatter with a Dutch and German gang — they’re everywhere ;) — and dossed down by the river for the night.

En-route from Theth to Çerem I met Chris (another German!) and we tramped along for two days together, both keen for big days — he in order to complete the ten day trek in the seven days he had available, me because I wanted my fitness back. Having figured out we were both a couple days away from our birthdays and had more than a few things in common besides, we parted ways near the Montenegrin-Albanian-Kosovan tri-border where I turned south to climb Gjeravica (Kosovo’s tallest mountain, 2656 m) before doing a little border shenanigans to actually ‘legally’ enter Kosovo… which I slightly regret now. Having crossed out of Kosovo and into the north-west of North Macedonia via the Sharr Mountains, and now back into Albania, I’m still ‘legally in Kosovo’, but whatevs, border control is nuttin if not a nuisance, hopefully the Greeks don’t raise a fuss.

In Gjakova I treated myself to a stay in a guest-house so I could do my laundry properly, and promptly had an allergic reaction to the detergent so I’m back to hand washing my clothes in rivers and streams — an economy-ecology synergy if ever there was one.

A still-drunk-from-last-night local insisted on buying me coffee in the morning; one of the returning diaspora of Kosovo wanted to pay for my stay at the guest house; and the following day’s walk (my birthday) from Gjakova to Prizren to meet up with Helen and Irfaan was punctuated by a near endless stream of free drinks and snacks, for all that I didn’t mention the date to anyone. Unë e dua Kosovën x

After a few nights in Prizren in the loft of a still-being-built building — a shrine no less — and some more of Helen and Irfaan’s noble and patient efforts to knock my Shqip into shape, I headed for the Sharr Mountains and the High Scardus Trail.

Once ‘on trail’ I promptly set about ignoring it — because whoever envisioned it seems to have chosen the least adventurous route possible, missing half the good peaks and almost all the good ridgelines — and made my own route towards Mt Korab (NM and AL’s tallest peak, 2764m), crossing the Big Turk aka Tito’s Peak (2748m) along the way. Korab was a steady climb, no exposure or scrambling, lots of sun but plenty of ice melt to keep cool. Good view. Not as triumphant as Triglav (Slovenia), majestic as Maglic (Bosnia), as… epic (good luck alliterating ‘Zla’) as Zla Kolata (Montenegro), nor as striking in the approach as Gjeravica (Kosovo), but good, and as good a venue as any to record an obnoxiously-long voice message to a good human I’m very fortunate to know.

Down Korab, into Radomir, espresso; up, down, up, down all the way to Peshkopi, which instantly became my favourite large-town/tiny-city (~15k humans, ~100k dogs?) so far in the Balkan’s. I arrived in the dark and was escorted toward town by seven boys aged 9-14 who were very keen to impress upon me just how much ganja was being grown in and around Peshkopi and sold in Amsterdam and London, in the latter case by cousins of theirs. Slept that first night somewhere I shouldn’t have (a few raised eyebrows in the morn’), and then set about meeting the town proper the following day.

Almost everyone I talked to asked me why I’d come to Peshkopi. “There’s nothing here!”, they’d say. “Perfect”, I said, and stayed for five days. Kafe in the morning, read a bit, write a bit, wander through streets filled with all the ‘nothing’ of people just living their lives, ie. everything. Eat lunch, write some more, get pulled into a bar to be interrogated about why the heck I’m in Peshkopi. Watch the Shqipri v. Croatia match with Jeton, Elgo, Korb and co — surprise myself by crying tears of joy with Korb when Shqipri equalised. Raki, espresso, raki, join the xhiro in the evening, sleep, repeat.

Speaking of the xhiro (pronounced ‘jiro’), Peshkopi had the best xhiro culture of anywhere I’ve yet been in Shqipri. The town’s size, its single, generous central boulevard (Elez Isufi), and — unlike many smaller towns — the presence of a significant number of young folk made for a supremely lively evening xhiro that I don’t expect I’ll see eclipsed anytime soon. Giggling kids; new parents; people in wheelchairs; self-conscious adolescents; couples of all ages; old men, some doddering, others up-right and quick-stepping; and only the most aristocratic of the cities’ feral dogs. All turned out for the xhiro, pacing from one end of the boulevard to the other, over and over, new comers falling in, early risers slipping off. Thriving, perfect, nothing.

As someone who abhors routine I found a good one in Peshkopi, and was sad to leave, but every end is a beginning and anyway that was two weeks ago, which means there’s still two weeks to recap, yippee!

Nope. Nuhuh. 2400 words is enough for now, for me and for you. This one was fun to write but a little chaotic (can you tell :D). Feel free to chime in if the pocket-vignettes of last year are easier to digest.

But wait, there’s more. A trailer, if you will. Or just a rhetorical question?

When did I begin to associate wander and wonder?

It came up with Jaye, she drew something beautiful in my journal that included the two, without knowing that that is the name I know this walk by, the one I hold closest, and which has become a sort of mantra. When that voice of doubt rises, asks “what’d’ya think ya doing, pal?”, I say “just having a wonder wander” and the voice goes away.

I guess the association is a natural one, surely no one has lived a lifetime without at least a little wander/wonder but still I went back through my journal and tried to find the earliest association of the two, and found something from November 15th, 2022. The relevant part is repeated below (though without its full context):

385,000 children born today. Today.

Just imagine all the experiences that this lot will have. How many of the people born today will I meet? Perhaps none. Yet each of them will inhabit this earth, they along with the next 385,000 to be born tomorrow. Their lives will share all the same essential components as mine.

We will experience joys, and pains, feel love, taste hate; think and see and touch; wonder at the world as we wander out in the world. We share all that and more, yet I will never know you outside of the arbitrary provocation of this made up clock that has counted you into the world.

Since then I’ve referred to it in my journal — or the ones I’ve transcribed at least — about a dozen times, sometimes it’s wander wonder, other times it’s wonder wander. I like that one is not always before the other, somehow it acknowledges that neither stands above. Wander begets wonder begets wander, becomes more wonder etc.

Anyway, that’s all my (legible) thoughts for today, so I’ll head back to the wander/wonder, talk soon x

  1. See Keep Your Identity Small for a partial rationale on that, but don’t imagine that I agree with all — or even much — of what Paul Graham says.↩︎︎