Time between travels…

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Photos by Erika Kochanski.

I said to a friend the other day, for a moment I thought I’d been back home for a year, but then realised in the past 12 months (from this moment) I’ve actually spent about a third of that year abroad. Again, somehow, as if by accident? We all know it’s no accident of course because I have an addiction that I pander to (quite happily I might add). But it doesn’t surprise me that the several months I spent in Australia this year felt more numerous than they were. A lot has happened in these past 12 months and it definitely feels like I managed to slow down time a little. Great personal achievements, difficult trials and tribulations, but through it all I have found so much love for faces new and old (not old in years of course, haha).

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However, here we are again, sitting in the time between travels. I have many projects in motion, budgets and plans to make dreams happen, and a huge posse of supporters worldwide for this eclectic journey I am on. Knowing that by this time next year it is extremely likely I will be living abroad again “who-knows-where” (let’s face it, I have ideas), I have begun to realise it’s time for me to see this corner of the world as a tourist. So few of us take the time to do this, hop on a bus at home the way you do when backpacking, staying in local hostels, enjoying local whatevers through fresh eyes.

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I realised how much I needed to do this during the two nights I spent in Brisbane when I arrived back in Australia. Rather than fighting the jetlag and coming home on buses with heavy bags in the middle of the night, I used my frequent flyer points on a hotel in the city. The idea came to me when I booked tickets to a concert for the night after my return, and rather than deal with public transport and/or taxi’s, it made more sense to just stay in the city. I could sleep when I wanted to sleep — hopefully not during the show — and enjoy the conveniences of being in the city.

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What I discovered was while I knew I had changed so much in my years travelling, so had my “hometown”. Brisbane became just like any other place I’d travelled to over the past few years: somewhere exciting to explore. So during these last few months of hard study I have ahead of me, I need to explore this corner of the globe more appreciatively. I must remember though, while my plans are to stay put in Australia during these last long months of my Masters, that was also my plan this past year and we saw how that turned out. Who knows, maybe I stumble on another travel deal of the century, or maybe I do just see local places through new eyes. Either way, 2019 I’m ready for you.

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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.

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.

I’ll meet you halfway…

I’m sitting here in avoidance mode, procrastinating over the avalanche of assessment items I’ve come back to while battling a cold and a broken finger, but I’m not sad. I’m reminiscing over my recent week-long break to Byron Bay with my friend Kaitlin who I met in Montenegro three years ago.

What a time it was. We kept each other alive back then, and over the past three years we maintained a group chat (along with Jake of course) but it was rare for any of us to be in the same country at the same time. I mean, even when we were in the same country we were still at least 750km apart.

But the stars did align and we made a plan. A grand plan. We would meet halfway (well, at least in travel time) and spend a week hanging out. It was like we’d never been apart. Our energy even made an impression on locals, from people in cafes to random passers-by, and Byron Bay certainly made its impressions on us.

To my sister from another mister: I love ya girl! Thanks for mushroom coffees, shopping blisters, shaky hand tattoos, dog spotting, bathroom giggles, whale watching sunsets, waterfalls and cliffs, orgasmic falafel, gelato stalkers, and all the bits I’m missing. It will not take three years to repeat.

Finally there’s Byron Bay. What a place. I was in the best place ever to be a vegan. Amazing options everywhere I turned, an eco friendly heaven. The place just oozes cool from its artistic street vibes to its designer boutiques and cafes. Surrounded by incredible natural beauty and friendly faces.

We also took trips to local places like Mullinbimbi, Crystal Castle, Nimbin and Protestors Falls to name a few. There’s so much to discover in this corner of the world, possibly one of the best corners of Australia. If you are travelling the East Coast of Australia I promise you will not regret stopping at this gem.

Cheers to you Byron Bay!

The wild Welsh wind…

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Photography by Erika Kochanski.

Wales. It has treated me well this past month. While I have spent my entire time exploring the Northern half of this beautiful country, I can only assume that I will someday return. When I landed here I knew nothing of its beauty, and when I leave, headed for England, I must say I will miss it. I will miss its gorgeous coastlines and incredible mountains. I will miss Snowdonia. I will miss the kindness and quirkiness of the Welsh people with whom I somehow feel I fit in. I will miss Wrexham where I spent the majority of my time and made good friends. There are just some corners of the world where you sense that the majority of people are happy about their place in the world and simply existing, and this is one of them. Wales. The chats with random strangers. The friendliness of passers by. Laughs shared, songs sung… when it all comes to and end next week it will all be carried forward in my heart. I am so glad my journey brought me here.

In the past month I have visited several towns, many of which the names I can barely pronounce, and all of which have stolen my heart. The weather has been kind, the food has been good, and while the mountains have left me in awe it has been the Irish sea that has stolen the show. How I had missed the sea, not having really seen it so purely since last year. Growing up with access to the open ocean, I hadn’t realised how much it was part of me until the past few days here in Aberysthwyth. I got the first sense of it on the bus along the coast to Conwy. There are so many places here worth exploring, I certainly hope I get another chance to come back here and explore them further/again. I would like to see more of the South as well one day, but for now, my journey will take me in the direction of Nottingham and the English East Midlands area. I feel good about my decision to explore a different area of the UK rather than the typical tourist hotspots, because it really does feel like another world here compared to my time in London a few years ago.

Cheers to future adventures.

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.

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

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.