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.

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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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.