Wednesday, March 30, 2011

They Say It's Your Birthday...

Howdy. I turned 23 a couple of days ago and yes I was in Skopje, which is probably not an ideal location. But I'll be honest, I've had worse birthdays. There weren't balloons, there wasn't any cake, I didn't unwrap any gifts and no one made me pin the tail on the donkey. Instead, I arrived in Skopje at four in the morning on the 28th, finally made it my hostel by half past five then slept until noon. Once I woke up I found that there was only one other person staying in the hostel: Alex from Boulder, CO. So we ventured out, walked around Skopje a bit and ended the day at one of the only bars in Skopje that sells dark beer. Randomly we were served some "chicken fingers" "on the house" and made friends with a very persuasive canine. 
He kept moving his head so the picture doesn't really do him justice. Trust me, he was adorable. I mean just look those eyes! In conclusion, a birthday is just a day, like any other day. Normally I would place a lot of importance on March 28th, but it was nice to just kind of ignore the fact that it was my birthday. Instead of celebrating it on one day I'm spending a week in Lake Ohrid, Macedonia and I'm going to let myself spread out a little bit. I don't know anything about Macedonia, the culture or the people, so I'm here to learn. Plus it's gorgeous here:

View from my room
Also fun fact of the day Lady Gaga is my Birthday twin "We were born this DAY" (clever, no?):

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Over the Mountains and through the Woods to Montenegro

The journey to Montenegro from Kosovo was full of absolutely stunning scenes like these. And the beauty just doesn't end! 
I made it to Kotor after getting off the bus prematurely in Budva. The bus driver, who to his credit, didn't speak much English told me, in his gesturey way, that this was the stop I should get off at. Oh how wrong he was. After half an hour walking in circles asking multiple people where I could find the hostel, a kind taxi driver told me that I was in Budva, not Kotor. Kotor is a beautiful place. The history of Kotor is interesting because this was the first line of defense (if you will) through years and years of wars and empires trying to conquer lands and people, whatever those big empires did back in the day. The town itself is charming and fully of charming people. Yes, charming. Kotor was charming. Plus it's built on a fjord, which is just a fun word to say. The reason tourists come to Kotor every year, other than the fact that it is charming, is to climb up to the fortress. Which I did, naturally.

So that was Kotor and the fortress. After thoroughly exploring the city of Kotor I went to Perast. I have a confession to make. I've been searching for Perast since I arrived in the Balkans. But I didn't know it was Perast. I was told (by a friends) that there is this wonderful small town which has two islands. One island is man-made and has a small chapel which sits atop this pile of rocks in the middle of the water. I thought it was in Croatia so at ever city I visit along the Croatian coast I would ask. Is there, near by, a man made island? It may have a small church built upon it? Do you know of such a place? And each time I would receive a weird look or two which indicated, no, they had no idea what I was blabbering on about. After traveling the entire coast of Croatia with no luck I had given up. Until one day when I discussing with Matt my plan to go to Kotor. To this he replied, "if you go to Kotor you must see Perast" and then told me of the island, the man made island, I had been searching for. 
The day to visit Perast came and as I entered this very small village I saw it. The island. I had heard a rumor that if you go to the dock you could get on a boat and for 4 euro they would take you to the island, drop you off there and then later pick you up. I excitedly sat at the dock, scanning the few houses and business for any sign of human activity. A few cars passed here but after an hour of silently, patiently waiting at the dock, I sighed, and gave up trying to visit the island that I had been searching for. At least I found it. 

I thought briefly about borrowing the boat and rowing myself out to the island but I am really horrible at rowing and decided I would rather give up the dream than accidentally drift off to sea. 

The islands of Perast

Only other person I saw. Probably not able to operate a boat. 

So people live here, right?

They follow me everywhere. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Three Days in Kosovo

When you hear, "Kosovo," (which I'm sure has happened in the past few days considering the media makes constant references to what went on there in '99 to the current situation in Libya) what comes to mind? For me it was scenes I vaguely recall from the news back before I gave a hoot about, or even understood, what was happening in the world beyond school and soccer practice. Most vividly I remember seeing the scenes of our planes dropping bombs somewhere and someone getting excited when Clinton was speaking. As I learned more about Kosovo in 2004 when it once again made an appearance in the news, I simply thought of Kosovo as a dangerous, off-limits, crazy place that I would, in all likeliness, never see. Yet here I am, sitting in Kotor, Montenegro still trying to wrap my head around how I just spent 3 days traveling through this strange place.

To begin, we took a bus that... well, I'm just glad we made it all the way to Mitrovica.
When we did finally make it to Mitrovica (Meat-row-vee-za... or something like that. I'm really awful with Slavic languages) it was dark and the streets at night are no place for someone as clumsy as I am. We entered the city on the Serbian side and Matt knew of a hotel on the Albanian side. Thus we walked along the dark, deserted streets of Mitrovica. At night when few people are out walking about there is a heavy cloud of eerie silence. As we crossed the bridge that divides the city I felt like I was being watched. Sure I may be paranoid at times but this feeling was legitimate. As you cross the bridge the eyes of NATO/EU/UN/Police forces are all focused on you. The bridge itself is like Mitrovica's limbo. Time seems to stand still until you make it to the other side.

The rules for crossing the bridge

It divides these two completely different worlds. One side speaks Serbian the other Albanian and it's difficult to imagine this city as a united entity.

Other parts of Mitrovica:

Desecration of a Serbian graveyard on the Albanian side of Mitrovica. 

Roma children.
There are a few similarities that tie the cities (that I visited at least) of Kosovo together. Bill Clinton, American flags, and action-star statues.

They aren't actually action stars but please, look at these statues and tell me you can't see them in the Matrix or some other slow-mo, big explosion, Hollywood action flick. 

Although I don't have a picture of it (because it's such a common occurrence I didn't even think to take a picture) there are American flags EVERYWHERE. As Matt explained to me: Kosovo (the Albanian sections... so most of it) fly these three flags and in this order: the Kosovo flag, the Albanian flag and the American flag. (Sorry Matt, but I'm stealing/borrowing your picture because it's so great).
Kosovo loves America. They will tell you so, and buy you Peja.

Although they love America, there is one American they hold in higher regards than any other: Former President Bill Clinton. The main drag in Pristina, the capitol of Kosovo, is Bill Clinton Boulevard. And on Bill Clinton Blvd. is a Bill Clinton statue. And big ol' Bill Clinton banner. There is also a Bill Clinton Boulevard in Peja... and I'm sure in many other cities. 

Fun story of the trip: on the bus from Mitrovica to Pristina we were lucky enough to have on-board entertainment. Endless videos of Kosovo's sweet techno-music scene. In the midst of these young, hip, auto-tuned teenagers was what can only be described as the greatest video of all time. I wish I had been thinking clearly at the time because I'm sure it's somewhere floating around the inter-webs. Alas, you will have to use your imagination as I describe it:
I looked up from the scenic Kosovo countryside when I thought I heard someone singing in English. What is this? I thought to myself. After a stream of hip music videos came this seemingly random video with a group of people dressed in what appeared to be traditional Albanian attire singing a chorus in English that said something along the lines of "America and Kosovo super friends" and "thank you U.S.A." I chuckled to myself, glanced over at Matt to make sure he was aware of this and then went back to watching the video. About 5 minutes into this 7 minute long song/music video where I was expecting to see scenes glorifying President Clinton, came instead George W. Bush. Of course this happened right after I took a sip of water and I proceeded to choke and almost spit all over the bus as the video continued to play this scene of Bush talking intertwined with this group of Albanian folk dancers/singers saying thank you America. What just happened? I think, at this point in history, Kosovo is the only (almost) country that is singing the praises of President G.W. Bush. I truly wish I could find this video for you guys. It was just... epic. 

I'll leave you all with this thought: During our 3 day trip Matt kept asking me, "What do you think of Kosovo?" and "How would you describe Kosovo?" At the time I could really only reply, "confusing?" because I wasn't really sure how to feel. But confusing is not enough. I was confused by Kosovo only because I let my preconceived notions about it being dangerous and tense cloud my perception. Now that I'm able to process, I would describe it as: tense, developing, and hopeful. Tense because there is still this feeling, especially in Mitrovica, that something could happen at any moment. The presence of foreign enforcement (NATO, the UN, etc.) is particularly helpful in maintaining that quiet tension. Developing: below is a picture of a slogan, "Kosovo: the young Europeans." They are a new country (or to some not even an independent state yet). They celebrated independence on February 17, 2008 and it is clear from the random scattering of new, modern buildings, that it is putting a great amount of effort into development. Finally, I don't think hopeful needs a lot of explanation. With development comes the hope that someday they wont need an intervening foreign presence and that all nations will be able to recognize the country of Kosovo. 

And I am hopeful that their beer will make it back to Seattle by the time I make it home. 
Seriously though. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Auf Wiedersehen Vienna

My two week vacation came to and end last night as I said good bye to my parents and hopped on the night train back to Belgrade. After spending time just relaxing and seeing the sights in Vienna I feel refreshed and ready to take on just about anything... which is good considering I will be on a bus to Kosovo tomorrow. Onward and South-ward!

Vienna Recap: Celebrated my birthday early with my family by eating at a great Greek restaurant a trip to the Vienna Residence Orchestra and movie night The Sound of Music.

Birthday Baklava and chocolate cake FTW.

Me and the parents and the orchestra

Just for fun here's my favorite song from The Sound of Music:

Edelweiss - Sound of Music - Christopher Plummer's own voice from Mark on Vimeo.

Now I'm on the road again. Kosovo-Montenegro-Albania-Macedonia-Turkey- then to Ethiopia, Kenya and wherever else I may end up going on this crazy adventure of mine.