The magic of discovery…

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I spent a good deal of last night writing a blog entry about magic, it’s intangible and inexplicable air of possibility, and how I have spent the past three and a half years trying to understand the particular brand I find of it here in the Balkans. Looking over my words I have yet again not been able to capture it, yet I continue to jump across magical moments here as though they were stepping stones. I’ve built bridges between places and people but also enjoyed settling for long periods of time in this town of Kotor that I have singled out so particularly. I move around within its stone walls as if it were my home and I wasn’t some strange Australian girl who had weasled her way in and disrupted their lives repeatedly.

I keep collecting intangible moments here, wondering if it’s possible to continue sampling this place indefinitely or if my luck will eventually run out, but as I look around at these smiling faces, hearing their hearty laughter, I know the memories of their magic will last within me. I know this because I have been back here only a few nights and it feels like a fortunate lifetime.

If there is one paragraph I can rescue from my scrapped blog post from last night it is this one: Can I take these people with me? As I watch them all I love them even more and no photo or video could capture them as they are in this moment, in this place, at this very point in time. Their magic is in the faces they pull at each other in jest, their booming voices, and the way they somehow let me be part of all this in a way that seems like an exception to the rule. I am a foreigner but somehow I also belong to their family. They call me an honorary Montenegrin, although I will never know how I earned this title.

The music is always better when Vlado plays it. The company is always better with my Montenegrin girl gang around. The night is always better when a song, a person, or a passing hug in an empty street reminds you of why it is you keep coming back. Travellers all ponder whether to extend their stay here without being able to put their finger on why, but I know why. This place is something to be felt, not abstractly described. These people are to be enjoyed, not analysed.

That point applies to every aspect of this entire country though. I spent an entire day on 360 Monte Travel Agency’s Great Montenegro Tour just two days ago and I have been trying and failing to capture its essence in words. Though I have wonderful photos (as you can see), the truth is they don’t demonstrate the feeling that this didn’t really feel like a tour to me rather than a day out with friends. Slavko was a wonderful host, leading us around this beautiful country and making us laugh. It was a social day as much as it was informative and interesting, and while we were all tired by the end noone seemed to be in a rush to get back to town either as we enjoyed one final stop for coffee and cake.

I know I have to start planning my exit strategy, but I am glad I can take my time doing it at a snail’s pace, and as I do so I will soak it all in. This town. These people. While I know I will be once again overwhelmed when it is time to leave I will never take the unique magic of this place for granted. It may be a long time until I feel its embrace again, because I don’t know what the universe has in store for me from here, but as always I hope this is just one more incredible window in time and not the last.

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Home is a lighthouse.

I am writing this on an overnight bus from Kosovo to Montenegro, where I will be reunited with Kotor, but this post is not about how wonderful Kosovo was (and it really was) or about the home I am going back to, it is about the home I just came from.

Skopje. Let’s not forget where this Balkan love affair began all those years ago. I know it’s hard for the travellers I meet to wrap their heads around why I have been back to this eccentric city 4 times (5 by the end of this trip). While drinking rakia and talking to travellers in the garden of my friends’ new hostel (Lighthouse Hostel Skopje, you have to stay here, seriously) I realised, I had been away for nearly 3 years but these people were still as exceptional as I had remembered.

I have been back in the Balkans for a week, and it has taken me this long to piece together my feelings and settle back into my happiness. The jetlag has been put behind me, but even in those tired weary days I was filled with the usual warmth that being in this part of the world brings, and it has nothing to do with the weather.

I didn’t realise how much I had missed Skopje. I did not take anything for granted, not even watching the sparrows fly around the rose bushes while drinking a strong cup of Turkish coffee, and certainly not the people whose company I have always enjoyed and who always make me feel as if I have always been there even when years have passed us by and so much has changed.

And so my bus pulls into Kotor after a long and arduous journey from beautiful Kosovo, and I am glad to be here but I am also glad that when those tear stained final days appear I will be going back to Skopje where it all began as if that’s the way it always was supposed to be since the beginning.

Be not afraid of where you are going, of who you are, or what might take you by surprise. The best moments are not to be anticipated, only lived.

Japan here I come…

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Photography by Erika Kochanski.

This little piece of metal and plastic. I bought it over a decade-and-a-half ago, around the time I used to steal travelogues on Japan. You know, before they handed them out freely and used to keep them hidden behind counters at travel agencies for serious clients who had serious potential for purchasing tickets, not young teens with sticky fingers.
 
This little piece of plastic and metal sat in a drawer for years before it got its first use: flying to the U.S. to spend time with my then boyfriend and meet his family. I was thankful that it was finally useful, even though in my heart I still pined for it to be used in Japan. When I told him this, we started planning to go. I bought [more] books and excitedly wrote [more] lists of things we could see, but this dream slipped away yet again when I realised it was never going to happen, that we weren’t meant to be, and so I stuck this little gadget back inside a box in a drawer and there it has stayed ever since.
 
It has travelled in that box to every place I have ever rented and lived, and now it sits back in the same drawer it was first put in all those years ago (although that drawer has been stylishly painted and refurbished since then). I had travelled to 23 countries outside of my own in that time, seen the world in so many different forms, and yet I still continued to deny myself the one place I desired to see the most. A denial for good reason perhaps – a certain stigma had been created around it through various events – and so I didn’t find myself worthy of ever bringing this dream to fruition. Until now.
 
On Monday I was tired of dreaming. I threw aside all my other plans and research, the half-a-dozen other countries I was mistakenly putting ahead of it on my list as if purposely keeping true dreams on the back-burner, and started reconnecting with old ideas again. Over time they had become less tainted by the past, and so a new excitement grew inside stemming from the old.
 
On Tuesday I bought a ticket to Japan.
 
On Wednesday I took this little piece of plastic and metal out of its box and smiled while looking at it for the first time in a long time. Out of all the things I have donated to charity to downsize my belongings while travelling abroad, this I was never able to let go of and now after all this time it will finally be able to realise its potential (as do I).

What a way to see out 2016 – an emotional roller-coaster of a year already – and get me ready for my 2017 life teaching English abroad. It is crazy wonderful how time moves our desires around in circles until we reach the places and maturity levels needed to go after them properly. I don’t think I would ever have been able to fully appreciate the opportunities presented me these next 12 months at the level I currently am if it wasn’t for the pain, hardship and sacrifice of my past. It has made all of this that much sweeter.

How to fashion a travel itinerary…

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A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill.
 
Traveling tends to magnify all human emotions.” — Peter Hoeg.
 
The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only life you have.” – Anna Quindlen.
I’m sitting here searching for flights, deciding what I still want to cram into this amazing year that I’ve had, and asking myself, “Where does your heart want to take you?” I think my heart is following a new path, not one of ticking off boxes, but one of embracing people, places and moments that have made me experience something bigger than what I am. I have warmed up, calmed down, gone crazy, and enjoyed everything that has come my way. I have cried, but I have learned it’s actually quite a wonderful thing when you ugly cry in front of people and realise that no matter how insane they think you are they’ll still love you. I may have done a lot of solo-travel in my life thus far, but I have rarely been alone. What I have done is met a ridiculous amount of good people, made a few great new friends, done some hilarious things and often found myself in hysterics for sometimes days or weeks on end. I am a serious girl when left to my own devices, and I have taken very little time to be serious about anything for a good portion of this year, and it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s not as childish as it sounds, it’s actually been incredibly liberating and necessary. There will be more bumps along the way I’m sure, but my path is getting clearer everyday and my priorities are getting more focused and stable.
World 2016

Behind green windows.

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Photograph by Erika Kochanski.

I have a new roommate in the hostel tonight named, Yahya. He is a refugee from Syria trying to make his way to Germany to hopefully use his contacts there to find work. A highly skilled medical engineer, days ago he left his family behind to take an extremely risky journey to escape from Syria, via Turkey, onto Greece and then into Serbia through Macedonia. He speaks to me so he can practice his English, which he had to learn in secret because it is not something that is taught back home. He apologises profrusely for his “bad English” but I can understand him perfectly fine as he shows me pictures of the dinghy he crossed into Greece on where he spent six hours shoveling out water and navigating the person who aided their crossing with his phone GPS. Even still, he stopped to take a picture of the sunrise.

Yahya shows me pictures of refugee camps, and of his children Hani and Aziz back in Syria, and although he has literally trudged across multiple countries in recent days, asks me if I need any privacy in the dorm room as he is “happy to leave if I need” because he doesn’t want me to feel uncomfortable because he knows his home country has a “bad reputation”.

His hope is to settle in Germany where they will likely want his skills and even then it will take him at least a year before he can expect to bring his children and family over safely. He does not want to risk their lives as he risked his own. A year or more before he gets to see them again, only holding on to digital pictures of them on his phone to remind him what he is doing all this for. They’re absolutely beautiful children, and you can see he loves them and is proud to show me their smiling faces. He apologises again for his poor English, but as far as I’m concerned he need not apologise. As the storm rages outside I wonder how it must have felt to cross all those countless kilometres through the elements and how tonight he ended up, in all places, on the bunk bed on the other side of my room. He risks all of this for his children’s future because he wants a better life for them away from all of the terrifying things going on there. Yahya hopes change comes for the good people of his country who are caught in the middle and don’t have the education he was fortunate enough to have and the opportunity to perhaps build a better life elsewhere.

Tomorrow he hopes to continue his journey towards Austria where he hopes to get on a train, and here I was this morning wondering how I was going to get to the airport on Wednesday. I am in awe of this man, this refugee, and his sincerity. Mostly I am so pleased that he shared his story with me and allowed me to write it, and touched that he is still able to smile even with all he has faced and the uncertainty that still lies ahead for him. Makes you think, doesn’t it? It should.

Goodluck Yahya.

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.

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.