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.

Go forth and absorb…

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Photography  by Erika Kochanski.

Heaven on earth does exist. For me there are a several places that have conjured up that feeling and one of them is being alone in a library full of old books. Their musty smell, the dark creaking wood under your feet and the cold feeling at your fingertips as you run your hands along the black metal gates that protect their fragile priceless pages. Hundreds of years of history and I’m lucky enough to be standing in the middle of it and I am filled with respect of dead authors and their living words.
As a writer these places mean more to me than expensive museums and art galleries. They are great too, but my funds do not stretch so far and so these are the places I turn to. I seek them out and they humble me, and travel should be humbling.
Who says seeing great sites has to be expensive? Not all the great sites in this world have been made into tourist traps. Some are free and uncommonly known. The Chetham and John Rylands libraries are two examples of my favourite sites in Manchester, and they need not cost you a penny to see (although I did leave a voluntary donation in honour of preserving these precious books).
The best part is that if you look hard enough you will find gems like these hidden in every part of the world. Not just old libraries, but unique places that will touch you just by standing in their presence. Mountain peaks, old ruins, the important places made of legends you hold dear, or unique architecture that sends chills up and down your spine. Art is everywhere. We take it into our minds like we breath air into our lungs and we take just as little time to appreciate it. Travel is that opportunity, so go forth and absorb.

There is no wrong way to see Japan…

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Photography by Erika Kochanski.

“But it’s not just another day, is it? Another coffee; another sunrise. It’s not just another bus ride or plane trip: it’s saying goodbye to a dream you just fulfilled, a new home you found on this earth, and new friends you discovered in your heart.”

I wrote this on the morning of my departure back to Australia after spending over a month backpacking through Japan. If it was sensible to say an entire country could be your soulmate, I believe I would declare Japan as mine and I was full of melancholy about leaving it behind.

There are lists upon lists of things one should attempt to do in Japan. The “must-see’s” and the “must-do’s” of experiencing the country. It can become overwhelming, and the one thing I found while talking to other travellers and residents was this: there really is nothing you can do wrong! When it comes to your own personal journey of exploration here the Japanese have created an environment where even a wrong turn leads to something magical. No journey compares to another. So long as you are willing to see and experience what comes your way you will not be disappointed.

I have been wanting to write an appropriate post on Japan since I arrived, but nothing has been poetic enough and the task of selecting a photos from the plethora of moments I have captured along the way is seemingly impossible. I have come to the conclusion that the spirit of Japan cannot be captured, and that the cultural experience contained there has to be absorbed rather than defined or described. Japan gave me earthquakes, sakura, autumn leaves and snow.

Japan I miss your flavours.

Scary, delicious freedom…

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I’m sitting here, drinking my coffee, staring at a piece of toast wondering what will become of me? I am here again, ready to embark on a trip to another foreign land that I only know about through words, pictures and pieces of film. Nothing prepares you, because a new place is rarely like anything you’ve ever encountered before and it rarely is what you thought it might be, it’s so much more. There is such greatness in uncertainty.

I’ve been pacifying myself for weeks and months trying not to be too eager, not to get too frustrated, not to get too ahead of myself so that when the time comes I’m open to every experience that is presented to me. I don’t want to be locked into any preconceived misconceptions or false fairy-tale ideals. Life is not a fairy-tale, but it is an adventure and that is exactly what I’m so keen to have: an adventure full of scary, delicious freedom.

I want to be scared because that gives me a chance to confront myself and grow. I want to taste what the world has to offer because there are more flavours to the world than we could possibly consume in a single lifetime. I want to meet with the open road and throw my old ideals out the window to make room for new insights. Perhaps one day I’ll eventually figure out a way to process and express all this newly obtained knowledge.

What it all comes down to is this: I am not running away from routine, I’m running towards change. Change is so important. It’s wonderful. It’s something to embrace rather than be threatened by. Adaptability is an asset, a strength, and there is nothing that requires adaptability more than an adventure. No one can tell you how it will turn out, where it will lead, who you will meet, or what obstacles you will encounter along the way.

So what if the unknown is scary and that some of the experiences along the way might be a harsh mixture of bitter and sweet? Nothing will prepare you for what it feels like to chose your own direction in life. Adventure can be found starting a new job, getting married or a many number of other ventures. It can be found anywhere that you dare to seek it out. Take the bull by the horns and really show yourself what you’re made of and live.

So don’t waste your time judging other people’s affairs. There is no logical reason to make comparisons between your journey and theirs. If someone’s daring adventure is starting a family, embrace it. If the call for you means throwing yourself into a different country, take pride in it. Not everyone was made to grow in the same direction so cheer on and encourage those who are running enthusiastically toward great change in their lives.

For me, today, it means taking a bite out of my toast knowing that in a matter of days I will be taking a bite out of a completely different culture. I can’t wait to drown my every sense in Japan. I look forward to being overwhelmed and in awe of everything I find. I can’t wait to wake up amid this upcoming escapade and see what I can learn from it. Japan: if you’re willing to be my teacher, I’m willing to be your student for five weeks of the unknown.

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.

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.

Spring in all its glory.

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Photo by Erika Kochanski.

I am sitting here in this beautiful old town we call Buxtehude (featured in my book for those who have read it or intend to). Known from the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales, this city will be my home for the next couple of months before I go off backpacking. This year I’ve elected to hit less countries over a longer period (stretching out my visits so my exploring is a more relaxed as I do so much on foot). Apart from Germany, planned travel includes Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Turkey and Malaysia. Thank goodness I’m good at saving.

Back in 2011 when I arrived in Germany for a year long stay, I got my first taste of what it was like to see Spring emerge as a spectacle. I was also fortunate enough to see the entire year of seasons pass in full, something I had never experienced before having grown up in tropical Queensland. Although through travel I had seen all the seasons in various stages, the experience of seeing each season as a whole with all the traditions and transition was magical. It is one of the things I am looking forward to seeing again.

Right now Spring is emerging. It is budding everywhere. When I arrived the cherry trees had their blossoms already and many of the trees were still bare. Now I’m seeing the tulips and daffodils spring up everywhere from the side of the road to people’s gardens. It’s not just the flowers though, there’s also the wildlife. On my evening jogs back home in Australia I’d cross paths with all sorts of parrots, kookaburras and kangaroos. Here I’m running into black birds, wild hares and deer as I run along dirt roads that run between fields.

There’s more to this place than the flora and fauna, although because I am particularly fond of nature I do tend to notice these things first. All matter of things I’m rediscovering and realising that I did miss them. Less obvious things, like the way bakeries smell here or the way the buildings and streets look. It’s the taste of things that haven’t been eaten since the last visit and words forgotten until seen on a menu or inside a recipe book. It all comes rushing back, and while things do also change there is comfort also in the things that don’t.

So now that I’m finally getting over about seven weeks of various illnesses (four back in Australia plus another three here), I’m looking forward to what’s ahead for the rest of 2015. My head has been so foggy lately that it was difficult to decide what to write about. I have gotten some lovely responses with regards to my book (plus one not so nice which kind of threw me backwards a bit, but that’s the world of writing I suppose and I have gotten past those negative words and focused on the many more positive ones that outnumber them).

 

Travel beginnings and ends.

Past Travels

Photo by Erika Kochanski.

 

“Nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form.” — Joseph Campbell.

I sure hope that’s true, that all things reform and carry on searching. That’s what we’re all doing, aren’t we? Searching and moving forward, and as we do so together we find new truth in ourselves and each other. Collectively we are always changing and affecting; we are but one energy split into countless pieces, moving together and apart. I wonder what pieces I will encounter this year on my newest journeys in writing and travel.

“‘Why not’ is a slogan for an interesting life.” — Mason Cooley.

I have walked, climbed, swam, hiked and trudged sometimes ridiculous distances just to seek something new. Whether it has been through bustling modern cities, old towns, crumbling ruins, lesser known beaches or even rocky mountainsides, in any case my battered and bruised feet have found it worthwhile. Every blister has been forgiven in the face of awe and inspiration. Every weary yawn in turn revived in the celebration of new sensations. Some of the greatest experiences I’ve had have been as a solo female traveller. If this is my past, then I can only expect great things from the future.

“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” — Joseph Campbell.

Tomorrow is my last day in Queensland, Australia. I have a rough plan for the next 9 months ahead of me, but beyond that there is much unknown. I have ideas ‘beyond that’, but I have learned that sometimes ideas are best kept secret until their fulfillment. Why? Because ideas can be fragile, so you have to protect them until they’re big enough or strong enough to stand on their own and become tangible plans and truths.

“Snowflakes are one of nature’s most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together.” — Vista M. Kelly.

I’m ready to go searching…