Time between travels…

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Photos by Erika Kochanski.

I said to a friend the other day, for a moment I thought I’d been back home for a year, but then realised in the past 12 months (from this moment) I’ve actually spent about a third of that year abroad. Again, somehow, as if by accident? We all know it’s no accident of course because I have an addiction that I pander to (quite happily I might add). But it doesn’t surprise me that the several months I spent in Australia this year felt more numerous than they were. A lot has happened in these past 12 months and it definitely feels like I managed to slow down time a little. Great personal achievements, difficult trials and tribulations, but through it all I have found so much love for faces new and old (not old in years of course, haha).

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However, here we are again, sitting in the time between travels. I have many projects in motion, budgets and plans to make dreams happen, and a huge posse of supporters worldwide for this eclectic journey I am on. Knowing that by this time next year it is extremely likely I will be living abroad again “who-knows-where” (let’s face it, I have ideas), I have begun to realise it’s time for me to see this corner of the world as a tourist. So few of us take the time to do this, hop on a bus at home the way you do when backpacking, staying in local hostels, enjoying local whatevers through fresh eyes.

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I realised how much I needed to do this during the two nights I spent in Brisbane when I arrived back in Australia. Rather than fighting the jetlag and coming home on buses with heavy bags in the middle of the night, I used my frequent flyer points on a hotel in the city. The idea came to me when I booked tickets to a concert for the night after my return, and rather than deal with public transport and/or taxi’s, it made more sense to just stay in the city. I could sleep when I wanted to sleep — hopefully not during the show — and enjoy the conveniences of being in the city.

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What I discovered was while I knew I had changed so much in my years travelling, so had my “hometown”. Brisbane became just like any other place I’d travelled to over the past few years: somewhere exciting to explore. So during these last few months of hard study I have ahead of me, I need to explore this corner of the globe more appreciatively. I must remember though, while my plans are to stay put in Australia during these last long months of my Masters, that was also my plan this past year and we saw how that turned out. Who knows, maybe I stumble on another travel deal of the century, or maybe I do just see local places through new eyes. Either way, 2019 I’m ready for you.

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Cocoons and changing leaves.

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If Kotor was my rollercoaster, Skopje is my carousel. That one’s for you, Jake. The Balkans is one hell of a themepark and I would love to stay here forever and never have to say goodbye. I don’t feel done with this part of the world, I want to keep exploring it, living it, but I know this has to end at some point, even if this particular themepark never closes. I leave on Saturday, but I’m glad that farewell doesn’t have to be forever. I can always return, and I absolutely intend to.

It’s been six months since this ship set sail, since I left Australian soil in search of myself, and I think what I have found is that I’m the best me I can be only when I’m hunting. That’s not to say I haven’t been crushed along the way – I don’t think anyone has seen me cry as much as Kaitlin – but in order to truly feel the great heights one must embrace the pits that sometimes form inside. Use them for comparison so when you’re looking down inside you feel dizzy and nauseous. If you’re barely holding on to your insides, you know you’re doing it right.

The number of times I’ve been called crazy for not fitting the “travel mould” really is insane, and kind of amusing when you think of what I’ve been through. Some people don’t get that there is no prescribed way to do this. I travel to unravel, not to check things off of some kind of bucket list, although there is nothing wrong with having one. Someone once referred to what was happening to me as emerging from my cocoon, and he was right: it has to be slow and in your own time. I don’t think I would have come this far if all I was doing was jumping puddles instead of exploring oceans.

I will enjoy these days while they last, and when the dust settles after I leave the Balkans and return to Germany, I will evaluate my position and what I want to achieve in the next three months while I am still in Europe. Where to go, who to see, how to spend my time… there are no wrong answers, only worlds of wanting amidst all of the emotional upheaval. I crave the potential to expand beyond what I have been because this is what the traveller’s heart is born for.

Let the leaves change, the snow fall, and the sun emerge when it’s ready to melt my heart once more. This is only one awakening, but it has been my favourite one.

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Sarajevo.

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“Wherever you fall to sleep in your secure existence, never forget that wherever there is war there was once peace, wherever there is death there was once life, and wherever there is danger there was once safety. You cannot predict change, with the exception of the changes you have the power to make on your own accord, so remember this and ask yourself: What would you expect from the world if your circumstances suddenly violently shifted sideways?” – Erika Kochanski.

War is a common theme lately in both my travels around the Balkans as well as everytime I give attention to the news. It’s something I grew up aware of coming from a German family in Australia, being called a Nazi by ignorant school children who knew nothing of what they were talking about. I see a lot of that on social media now on a bigger scale, it saddens me and it’s a shame.

But I don’t want to talk about war today, no matter how topical it may or may not be. I want to show you Sarajevo as a beautiful city which is constantly rebuilding itself. I think the best way for me to do that is in pictures. As much as I am aware that there is a wartime undertone to anything associated with this city, I want you to see the beauty that it is now, and in some cases, once was before the horrors that it endured.

 

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Flies and their mutterings.

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Photo by Erika Kochanski.

It’s one thing to secure yourself a bottom bunk at a hostel so you can live a blissful ladder-free existence, it’s another when you fall back on your childhood skills and build yourself a really sweet fort. I’m staying in my cocoon tonight with snacks, books and a lamp, and I refuse to feel bad about it.

There’s this thing, you see, called guilt. It’s generally put into existence by other people’s shaming yet entirely adapted into our brains on our own accord. Someone tells you that a traveller needs to do this or see that, and your brain takes out the whip and cracks it as if to say, “snap to it, motherfucker.”

If this springs true to you, put down the whip. You are allowed to retreat from the world. There will be new dogs barking at your feet tomorrow, ringmasters and their orders, flies and their mutterings buzzing about your ears, but do yourself this one kindness. It matters. Traveller or not, put yourself into timeout.

The hard part is leaving.

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Photo by Erika Kochanski.

Top 10 Shanti Hostel Skopje Moments (in no particular order):

Petar #1 running up to my dorm room window while I was sorting through my locker yelling “Erika, your chair is fixed!” To be clear, it wasn’t actually my chair, it’s a communal hammock that I just happen to sit in almost every morning when I eat my breakfast and write ideas, emails, stories, etc. But still, when it broke (while I was sitting in it, which was hilarious in itself) Petar made it his priority to get it back up and running. His excitement delivering this message to me was priceless.

Petar #2 giving us one of his mother’s incredible homemade stuffed peppers to try. He only had three for himself, but just because he knew how much Serena (a fellow traveller) and I had fallen in love with stuffed peppers, he gave us one to share. Hands down best stuffed peppers ever.

Everytime Mishe called me awesome. Well, really pretty much anytime Mishe said anything. How welcome I felt when he checked me in. Mishe’s shrugs, smiles and hugs. Why? Because Mishe is awesome. Truth.

Drinks with Mishe, Maki and Serena by the river. It had been so long since I laughed as hard as I did that night, combined with Mishe and Maki both bent over a phone laughing as they read my recent blog entry.

Everytime Maki and Dina’s Dad brought me something from home. First homemade his amazing wine, then delicious sour cherry liqueur, and then a wooden puzzle to do because he had seen me playing with a rubiks cube. The only way I could complete it was with a video I found online with the solution.

Every single time Petar #1 said, “no problem”, “no worries” or “all cool.”

Drinking coffee and chatting about books and writing with Maki in the common room. Seems so long ago now, maybe during my first week here, but it got me back into writing travel blog entries and for that I’m so grateful!

Learning to count in Macedonian and read numbers written out in Cyrillic with Petar #1 and the wonderful cleaning staff (love them) throwing me random numbers everytime we crossed paths that day.

Movie nights with Maki. I think anytime I see a Simon Pegg or Will Ferrell movie I will remember sitting on the couch next to Maki in Shanti laughing my ass off.

Music night with Petar #2. A guitar, a recorder, some kind of Russian stringed instrument (I have been told at least twice what it is called but I keep on forgetting the name), an accordion, beer and a home grown tomato.

And these are just a few moments with the hostel staff. There are perhaps hundreds that I have collected in long emails back home, also featuring the people I have met and the things I have seen, done and learned about in Skopje. I have 150 photos of beautiful places and people stored away safely, and I have eaten good food in a dozen different places. I have lived well here, and been happy.

Skopje, I will return.

Mishe is awesome.

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Photo by Erika Kochanski.

You learn things about yourself travelling. For instance, I have learned that my “resting bitch face” pretty much translates to, “f**k off.” I have ordered things off of menus which I couldn’t pronounce. I have fallen in love with stuffed peppers. I have triumphed over language barriers, and occasionally failed. I have discovered how to mime with a certain degree of humility (not humiliation). I have learned to question things less, make a fool of myself more, and be a tad less suspicious.

Travel also helps you see greatness in others. You may find yourself playfully arguing over the least likely of things, like the eternal question of which is better: Star Trek vs Star Wars (Star Trek). You’ll find people with shared interests anywhere, like the mutal appreciation for a random television program (As Time Goes By, Black Books or Futurama to name a few). You’ll maybe discover someone writes poetry. Everyone is interesting.

You’ll never get sick of hearing the words, “No problem.” You will hopefully learn how to appreciate candor, and how there is so much you can say with the words, “Okay, alright.” With the best type of people you will find yourself almost falling off of a chair laughing with them in the middle of the night drinking “tea”. You will discover Mishe is awesome (it’s absolutely true), or that it’s fun designating animals to people you’ve recently met for no obvious reason other than it is fun (edit: according to Mishe I’m a seahorse).

Skopje has been good for my soul in an oddly wonderful way. Even on a quiet day I had the best fun simply staying in and learning how to count in Macedonian with the help of the hostel staff. I am so glad I came here and gave this place some time to sink in because I can honestly say I will be sad to leave (scorching heat or not). It is amazing how much comfort you can find in places you never expected to, and Shanti has definitely been one of those amazing places.

The art of travel.

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Photo by Erika Kochanski.

And then here I am, drinking what I’m told is a “real Macedonian coffee” at 9pm with Maki, and he’s telling me all about how much Skopje has changed in the past 10 years, people’s common misconceptions, what it’s like running the hostel, and how rare it is to have guests like me who come here to relax and enjoy the surrogate home they’ve made for us travellers. If you are open to it, it is very easy to feel at home and welcome here. I am aware that I am a different kind of traveller, still foreign, but I think he can see my appreciation for this quirky city. I hope he can. Then he tells me about his family, what it’s like to live here, and shows me a new perspective. Why? Because I chose to stay in tonight and read a book, sitting with wet hair and pyjamas on their comfortable common room sofa.

I spend so much time calling myself antisocial, yet I am now starting to realise that is not actually true. I have drunk rakija with Peace Corps, wine with the English, eaten dinner with Bulgarian, French, American and Dutch. I have met a Macedonian painter, architect, and a German documentary film crew while discovering the beauty of Matka with a girl from Finland. There are so many different aspects of being “social”, and for so long I have prescribed myself the label of lacking. I was wrong, or listening to the wrong people maybe? Regardless, I listen to Maki talking passionately about things, occasionally on the verge of frustration, but his face is always kind and words true. I can respect that.

The phone rings and Maki flies up and down the sharp spiral staircase with such expertise. I see travellers navigate it everyday, their eyes opening up wide in terror when they first lay eyes on it with their luggage hanging around them. New travellers come and go everyday and the staff work hard but their warmth makes this place what it is: a home away from home. If you take the time to watch it all happen around you, you develop a serious respect for who they are and what they do. They take you in, under their wing. It’s not just Maki, it’s the whole extended family of the hostel. It’s how they take care of everyone and how patient they are. It’s the homemade wine Maki’s father gave me. It’s how they all know your name because you’re the girl who is hanging around for more than two days.

The world is a teacher. Travelling is a lesson. Don’t be precious. Feel the adventure. Pace it. Interesting things unfold when you do things differently. There will be moments you may want to withdraw and there will be moments you want to reach out, but it’s all part of it and there’s really no wrong way to travel so long as you exercise a little mindfulness. Forget the shoulds and listen to your heart (as hokey as that may sound).

Fly the coop.

wpid-dsc_03852.jpg.jpegThe overwhelming (yet extremely rewarding) challenge that is travelling. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, among other things. I’ve got just over three months of backpacking ahead of me and, while I trust my ability to organise and prepare, I do feel very much like this time I’m winging it. I have no doubts that I’ll find my feet, and be able to jump any hurdle along the way, but after three decades of being the extreme planner, I’ve become one of those girls who simply just wants to know I at least will have a roof over my head and let the rest figure itself out. Years of making future plans that fall apart, all the travelling that I have done (to renew myself after potentially crippling moments), and I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can live in the now more than the what was and what could be.

After all, now is all we’ve got, nothing else is as assured.

So, I’m sitting here sorting through my things, deciding what is worth taking and what isn’t, and realising that it doesn’t really matter what I pack. It doesn’t matter how much I prepare. I’ve never been to any of these countries that I’ll be visiting, and I don’t know another soul who has been to any of them either, so really, as long as I have a hostel bed waiting somewhere for me at my destinations and something to write on, I’ve got everything I need and the rest is just icing on the cake. I mean, every place has coffee right? That’s the real essence of life right there, and I have enough solo-travel behind me to make it through some potentially pretty amazing experiences.

Let’s fly the coop. In this context, the coop is not a physical place, it’s a mental state.