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.

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.

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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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.

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.