I’ve met a lot of people in my few years of traveling and feel like I’ve got more than enough characters to make up a pretty funny novel about meeting them all. I’m a fairly shy, introverted person and it takes a while for me to talk a lot and be open with people, but I’m very easy going and so I think I listen to other people well. I think this is why I’ve been able to collect so many stories of meeting so many strange people. Even if they’re horribly strange or offensive, I usually hear them out and never get too worked up.
Despite how jaded and cynical I feel about some things, I think that this probably represents some naïve hope for humanity within me. An inherent trust in people. Surely this guy can’t be as crazy as I think he is, I’ll just let him keep talking until he redeems himself. Or maybe I’m wrong in that, maybe it’s the opposite – that I don’t care enough about them to get angry and disagree with them – that would require emotional investment in the encounter, but they’re not worth getting worked up about.
Sometimes I’ll continue talking to them and ask them questions, or keep hanging out with them again and again even if I don’t like it very much, just to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. Oh, that’s very interesting that you think the world is only 6,000 years old, what do you make of things like dinosaurs or the grand canyon? Or: Please, kindly explain your hatred of these different nationalities to me again, I couldn’t quite follow.I don’t know why I continue to put myself in these situations even if I know they’re going to be miserable, perhaps it’s due to complacency or an overwhelming need to be polite and not offend them, maybe this is why I so often find myself in uncomfortable scenarios. But at least I get plenty of good stories out of it.
I’m often not sure what my journal writing is (handwritten journal) – whether it’s a collection of places I’ve been, things I’ve done, a personal diary, or something else, but I think what amuses me most rereading what I’ve written before is remembering the weirdos I’ve met along my way.
One of these strange characters about whom I don’t believe I’ve written on my blog before is Mark the Artist. God, was he ever a nut. I met him when I was traveling through the Balkans with Matt the Canadian in the fall of 2010. It was mid November, and we checked in to the Sunny Lake Hostel in Ohrid, Macedonia. We looked around the hostel to see what was going on. It was empty except for a small, older man who was sitting on the balcony, chain smoking cigarettes and smoking each one all the way down to the filter. Here is a man who has smoked quite a bit of cotton, we thought to ourselves.
We got talking to him, you know, the usual hostel talk. Where are you from, how long are you on the road, where have you been, where’s next for you, why did you take off, what are you going to do when you go back, etc. It turned out he was from Milwaukee and had been on the road for about 3 years. He had been in the Marines, but had suffered some sort of injury where his nerve endings were all screwed up and he couldn’t really walk or stand around very much at all. So he was living on his military disability money, living in various places for a few months at a time, and moving on to the next place, living there cheaply and moving on again. Mark lives in all these places but since he can’t really walk around, he just smokes all day. Sits in the hostels, downloading movies and slowing down the internet connection for everyone.
He’d been a private investigator for a number of years. His nickname: The Shark. Because whenever they needed someone really good, they sent him in, and nobody knew about him and he was vicious. Would be undercover in a company, learning all their secrets and ratting them out, and nobody would know. The Shark.
He always told us he was a lethal weapon from his days in the Marines. Told us a story about how when he had first started traveling he was at a bar in Mexico and someone in line for the bathroom didn’t like him and pulled a knife on him, so Mark put him in a hold that immobilized him and could have snapped his neck if he so wished, but he wasn’t angry at the guy, he just wanted to have a peaceful evening. The bouncers took them both outside and made the one guy leave, but they let Mark back in because they could tell from the way he had fought the man that he wasn’t aggressive.
Mark collected his disability checks but he liked to work in all of these places he lived. He’d usually work in hostels until his tourist visa would run out and he’d move on. We were heading to Istanbul so we asked for a hostel recommendation, as he had been in Istanbul for quite a while. He said that we should avoid one hostel where he had worked for a while as a bartender because the hostel owners were in the mafia. One day he heard the hostel owner’s brother pull a gun on someone at the bar. They also imported various drugs to the country. One of which was viagra, and he had overheard the hostel owners discussing that they should test the new shipment on some girls who had just checked in. Mark kept a vigil outside their door that night, and the next day left the hostel.
He said that there were always Turkish guests in all of the hostels he’s stayed at since then, so he understood this as evidence that the Turkish mafia was following him around.
Other things he said were just spectacular. You’re an oddball Matt, and you’ll only get odder as you get older. One day Matt was eating a hard boiled egg: Don’t eat that, you’ll be as wide as you are tall! One day we were discussing music and he voiced his opinion that: American blacks have ruined the culture of the world. Matt is a big hockey fan and always talks about hockey. But Mark says: I don’t like sports. They’re violent and they make other people violent. We also were talking about hostels one day, and how some hostels have lockers to put your valuables in. But Mark doesn’t ever use lockers. He just sleeps in his jeans, that way he just keeps all of his valuables in his pockets and they’re safe all the time.
The best Mark the Artist story though, is from our last day in Ohrid. The previous night Matt and I had gone to the Jazz bar for some drinks. Ohrid is a sleepy town, so imagine how lively the Jazz bar was on a Monday night in the middle of November. We had ordered ourselves some drinks and the bartender gave us a few vodkas that some guy at the other end of the bar had ordered for us. I told Matt to drink his first, and if he didn’t pass out I’d drink mine. He was fine, so I drank mine, and we ordered more.
Closing time, so we set off in search of kebabs. We got separated on the way back to the hostel, though. I didn’t find any kebabs, so I bought chips instead. By the time I returned to the hostel, I found Matt asleep on the couch in the lobby. I went to bed.
The next morning we had planned on getting the morning bus to Sofia, but we slept past it and had to get the night bus instead. I went up to the kitchen to start boiling some eggs for our breakfast and Matt got in the shower. All of a sudden Mark ran up the stairs to the kitchen and turned on the faucet, then ran to the bathroom and flushed the toilet and turned the faucet on. What are you doing? I inquired. Matt’s in the shower. I’m fucking with him! In this hostel if one water source was running, the shower would be just a slight drizzle. Why are you fucking with Matt? That’s not very nice! I was perplexed. He woke me up last night. Banging on doors, talking loudly. So as far as I could gather, after Matt and I had split up in the night, he had gone to the hostel and had searched for me loudly, disturbing Mark’s jeans clad slumber. Despite my pointing out that Matt had been out cold on the couch for most of the night, Mark was irate and taking his vengeance by continuing to disrupt Matt’s shower.
Matt got out of the shower and we ate our breakfast and walked around for our last day in Ohrid. We were walking around, discussing how crazy Mark was. What kind of a person lives in hostels and gets so upset at being woken up in the middle of the night that he sabotages other people’s showers the next day? I had just uttered the phrase that Mark is completely psychotic and then we noticed him ambling along 15 feet in front of us. We froze. What the hell was he doing walking around? Why isn’t he in the hostel smoking? What could we do? Had he heard us? Of course he heard us!
Well, we went a roundabout way through the center and along the lake, hoping to not run into him again. But I looked back and could see him a ways behind us. God, the Shark is after us, we thought to ourselves. Matt disturbed his slumber and he just heard me call him completely psychotic. We spent the day avoiding the hostel. We returned in the evening to get our bags and head over to the bus station for our night bus to Sofia. In the short time frame that we were in the hostel we heard Mark come in and walk past our door, but he didn’t poke his head in or say hello or anything. We paid for our rooms and left, glad to not have another encounter.
Such is the tale of Mark the Artist.