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.

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.