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.

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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!

Montenegro is my soulmate…

It’s one thing to adore a remarkable town like Kotor, but it’s another thing to fall in love with an entire country like Montenegro. It’s no secret that Kotor has been a notable place in my life for the past 3 years (five visits and counting) but I’m starting to believe that Montenegro as a whole may just be my soulmate. It was by touring with 360 Monte Travel agency on my most recent visit that I came to this conclusion so I want to talk a little about my experience with them.

As a last minute decision I found myself on a day-long boat tour of the beautiful bay of Kotor. I’m not usually a tour company girl — everything I do is usually solo and self-planned — but I was in for an exceptional day! Relaxing on a boat being fed fruit and champagne, jumping off of it to swim through vibrant blue caves, and seeing unique sights along the way… well, that was all dreamlike enough, but as a bonus I also met some really incredible people and for me that’s the best part about travel.

After this wonderful experience I decided to book another tour with 360 Monte. After much deliberation I jumped on the Northern Montenegro tour because it was a part of the country I hadn’t come close to exploring. While the bay is indescribably beautiful and certainly attractive as a tourist destination, it was important for me to see that there is so much more to the country — especially after having been here so many times! Our guide Slobodan was amazing, giving us information and telling us stories which got me hooked onto Montenegrin culture.

I had been warned that there was going to be a lot of driving involved, but to be honest I found that to be part of the magic. The countryside, towering mountainside, twisty roads, mountain plains and canyons do not get boring. This is as much a feature of the trip as the marvellous stopping points along the way (Salt Lake, Tara Bridge, Durmitor, Black Lake and Ostrog Monastery — yes you do get to go inside). Everyone was laughing and forming new friendships, and with a little car dancing to keep spirits high and some local food along the way all I could do was smile and appreciate the wild beauty of Montenegro’s North.

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How I know Montenegro’s my soulmate:

1. It has beauty and soul.

It will charm you every chance it gets, from the mountains to the sea and all the wonderful people in between.

2. It calms and exhilarates.

There is no wrong way to spend your time here. Wild nights, lazy days… it simply lets you follow your heart.

3. Its stories never bore you.

It was love at first sight, but every tale told will make you profess your love for it even more. You’ll be enthralled.

4. You love it beyond all others.

It’s true love when you’re in an open relationship with the world but would give all it up to be here once more.

5. It leaves you wanting more.

After all this time I’m still constantly discovering and seeing this place with new eyes — and I hate leaving!

As with all travel experiences they are what you make of them. Sometimes you just connect, find your type of people, and get seduced by your surroundings. We’re all different, but for me Montenegro is what the fire inside me now burns for. I rarely give recommendations, but if you want to make the most out of your experience in this country come to Kotor. These are my five favourite businesses in town:

1. Old Town Hostel (budget accommodation done well).

2. Palazzo Drusko (amazing luxury accommodation).

3. 360 Monte Travel Agency (offering 4 day tours and transfers).

4. Scala Santa (restaurant with great food and atmosphere).

5. Letrika (great coffee by day, phenomenal bar at night).

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My vows to Montenegro:

1. I’ll learn your language (just give me time).

2. I’ll come celebrate with you when I graduate.

3. I’ll do my best to capture you in my writing.

4. I’ll not forget the times we’ve had together.

5. I’ll cry everytime I leave you (100% guaranteed).

 

 

In good company…

What is it that makes travel friendships so incredible? I have been travelling on and off for years, almost always solo, yet there are so few times I would ever say I felt alone. Even the times I was lonely I would say that was by choice, and mostly out of stubbornness and not because there was no opportunity to socialise. But even those stubbourn lonely moments lead you back to people if you let them, like the time I broke my foot in Montenegro and sat debilitated in my apartment for 5 or 6 days before I was able to overcome my pride and ask for help. Once I finally did great things flowed on from it and proved that not even my pride or broken bones and ligaments could stop me from finding silver linings and amazing people.

I think what happens to you when you travel on your own is that you’re stripped of routine, familiarity and responsibility and what’s left is the purest version of yourself. It is this version that people react to and their reactions for the most part are a direct reflection of who you are at your core. When you travel longterm without accompaniment you naturally drop all the pretences and live more openly and I suppose it is this openness that attracts good company in kind, be that of local citizens or other travellers crossing your path along the way. And here’s the great thing: friendships like these when they survive can actually be resilient as hell.

And how do these friendships survive? Is it possible to maintain them for years after a brief encounter? I think so. I know so, because I still feel incredibly connected to some people several years on and keep in regular contact. We still share jokes, memories, and ideas. Some of these friends I can imagine still knowing when we’re old and grey, laughing about the time we had way back when and (if we’re lucky enough) the times our paths crossed again afterward. The mere idea of that makes me smile, and the hopes I have for each of their futures fill my heart along with the gratitude I have for having known them now.

I think when you travel on your own the world shows you who you are, and if you don’t like who you had once been it gives you an opportunity to evolve. Doors open and limits dissolve, and you cross paths with people who are going through a similar experience with minds wide open. This is a positive thing to connect with and while we are all so different we are also indeed the same and we laugh and bond and sometimes cry when we have to say goodbye because there is no certainty in when you’ll meet again. Travel friendships may appear to come out of nowhere, but they’re written in the stars as we stumble our way wide-eyed through a world we can barely ever truly know, but at least we know we’re in good company.

Special thanks to my friends at Old Town Hostel Kotor and 360 Monte Travel Agency. These are the people you need to know to take your Kotor experience to new heights.

Until we meet again…

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Photography by Erika Kochanski.

How do you say goodbye to a place that never fully leaves you? The answer is you don’t. You take it along for the ride with you wherever you go until you are able to return again. Then you welcome it with a new hello and allow the familiar to become something entirely new. I came back to Montenegro thinking I had returned here to hide out in Kotor but I was in denial. I wasn’t coming back to hide away from the world at all, I was simply coming home.

Up until the first time I met this place I was counting countries. Apart from countries that housed family, I had not considered revisiting places I had already been to an option over the chance to go somewhere new. Then back in 2015 I came to the Balkans for the first time not knowing what to expect and everything changed. I stopped counting and I started returning.

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I have been meaning to write a decent blog entry since leaving the UK, but it’s hard to write Kotor when you’re living Kotor. As much as the town and its people inspire me, it’s become a place that puts me under a magnifying glass and I am faced with all the parts of me that I’m not always so willing to embrace. But Kotor accepts my demons, even encourages them in a way that I once believed to be self-destructive — but now I know otherwise. We make unfathomable connections to others when we’re bound by the truths of our raw selves. We don’t need fixing, just embracing. We don’t need defining when we just let ourselves be.

There’s a part of me that also wants to write about the beauty of Montenegro, because it is exquisite, but I am still emotionally swept away and going through the pain of leaving it all behind again. I am enjoying Croatia now, but my heart is of course still in Montenegro. Maybe it always will be. As my Montenegrin friends tell me, I will be back again. They appear to be very confident in that fact, but then they seem to know me better than I know myself sometimes. I trust that they are right.

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In a place that couldn’t be more different than where I come from, a place that is as confronting and confusing as it is comforting and insanely beautiful, I have a surrogate family. They leave me realising that the only enemy I have is myself. I am allowed to be messy. Good bad ugly mess. Raw. Pain. Love. Overwhelmed. When those dislocated emotions get turned up to full volume and you think they might just eat you alive, out of nowhere comes this human safety net whose presence feels like a hug. But I think you need to have gone through the pain to fully appreciate the embrace.

I don’t trust my brain to bottle it. It cannot be preserved indefinitely. I try to write about the polished limestone and the hearty laughter but I can never do it justice. This is why I know when my friends tell me that I will be back again that they are right. If people are soul food, then Kotor is delicious and can be enjoyed with a side of natures splendid majesty. Whatever the rest of the world strips from me, it is replenished here in so many different ways. One need only trust that the stars will align for my return sooner rather than later of course.

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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.

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.

Under the Irish sun…

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Photography by Erika Kochanski.

I have been in Ireland for 9 weeks now and Ireland is wonderful. When I got here it was all about the frost (and we even had a little snow), and now it’s all about the daffodils. I have certainly been through some ups and downs whilst staying here but also I am incredibly proud of myself at confronting a few of my fears that I had been avoiding for a very long time. It’s just proof that you need to occasionally put yourself out of the box to challenge your comfort zone and build on top of the greatness you already have inside. Not that I’m calling myself great, but I can see my potential now and that’s a fine thing.

In just shy of 4 weeks I will find myself in Liverpool, and by then I hope to have completed my transition into veganism. From all I have read it is a good place to be a vegan, as is where I am headed in Wales after that. That has what this year so far has been about: learning about myself and trying to figure out why I’ve been so unhappy. When I reconnected with vegetarianism a month ago I rediscovered myself. I had spent so long ignoring my core principles and feeling guilty for them that in the face of everything I know it was eating me up inside. Then I learned more, and it was the first time in a long time that I had found a passion for something again and I knew what I had to do to take it further.

I am not going to preach veganism here, that is not what this blog is for, but I do encourage you all to look within yourselves and ask yourself if your eyes are open or closed to the world around you. Ask yourself what you really know about what you eat, who you compromise your ethics for, and how much you know about the political environment of this planet we call home. Your core principles are your own, but if you are unhappy try and find a way to align what you practice with what you preach. None of us is perfect, and it isn’t about perfection. This world is flawed, but it won’t get better unless we do something!

I have travel plans booked up until the end of June, but I still am deciding where I want my journey to take me after that. Luckily I have plenty of time, and plenty of options. The important thing is I know the vibe I want my journey to take, and I am generating ideas all along the way of all kinds. Useful ideas that I can see bettering my life for the foreseeable future. Business ideas, book ideas, and I am happier and more confident that ever before.

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.