Curiosity at a cafe

I was walking back to my hostel in Shkodër, Albania when a couple of men at a cafe made a gesture of hello and stopped me, then insisted I go inside to buy a drink and join them.

During times like these, instead of asking myself, “Why?”, I find that it’s often better to ask, “Why the hell not?”

So I bought an ayran (a salted liquid yoghurt drink) and sat with them. They spoke absolutely no English and my Albanian is limited to a mispronounced “thank you.” But I was able to introduce myself and tell them my background and nationality. Beyond that, they talked a lot and I couldn’t decipher any of it. It was a lot of fun but no less sufficiently awkward.

Isn’t it great, though, to have these interactions with people with whom you can barely communicate but who are so welcoming and curious to know a bit about you and why you’re in their country? That’s such a great part about travelling that too often gets lost in the scuffle when you’re principally concerned about just getting somewhere…

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Another photo for the Balkan sunset collection

I’ve seen so many sunsets in the Balkans that I feel I can make a photo collection out of them. Well, I took another one for the collection today. Unfortunately, I took it from inside a bus and the windows were dirty and stained, which contributed to a blurry image, one certainly not worth posting. But the sunset was so vivid and stunning that it’s certainly worth the effort to at least attempt to describe what my eyes witnessed.

It happened shortly after crossing the Bulgarian-Macedonian border on narrow, winding, bumpy roads through empty hills with low-lying mountains in the distance. The horizon was every shade between purple and yellow, and the sun made a striking appearance under the few clouds accentuating the sky, clouds shaped like free-formed swirls echoing the whims of the people in the Balkans. It was the same sun I’ve seen thousands of times before, but today particularly remarkable and spectacular, a perfectly circular, pulsating orange sphere slowly descending into the mountains. A flock of birds, black shadows flying in unison in the sky, rendered the image even more arresting. A lone shepherd tending to his flock of grazing sheep in the rolling fields might, too, have noticed.

The sun’s disappearance signalled the end of another day of travel, a day when I left Bulgaria after spending two wonderful weeks there, a day when I came back to Macedonia and reminisced my time here last year. It’s the end of another day in the Balkans, another day of intense vibrancy in which I recognize how alive I always feel in this corner of the world. The Balkans is my favourite place in the world – there’s something about this region that does something for me – piques my senses, gives me energy and makes me feel more alive, makes me strive for something better yet makes me appreciate all that I already have…

How many sunsets I have admired over the past four years in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and hopefully soon in Albania and possibly in Greece…

Another “rescued by locals” story

I took a train from Bucharest, Romania to Gorna Orjahovica in Bulgaria where I befriended a Japanese man named Ari while waiting for our connecting bus to Veliko Tarnovo, which dropped us at the railway station outside of the medieval town. We decided to walk to our hostel, first across the highway, then through weird passageways, then up a hill to the edge of the town centre.

About an hour in, we stopped to look at Ari’s map and make sure we were going in the right direction. A couple of Bulgarians, Miro and Alex, saw us foreigners with our big backpacks and asked us if we needed help. After looking at our map, they decided that the distance was too far to walk and offered to drive us to the hostel. Tired and sweaty, we gratefully accepted at this point and it was a fortunate turn of events because after the ride, we figured we’d be walking at least another 40 minutes to get to the hostel. We also got a brief history lesson and a mini-tour of the city on the way there.

If this was any indication of the interactions I’ll have in Bulgaria, I’m sure I’ll love it here. The hospitality in the Balkans never fails to surprise or inspire…

Cambodia reflections

It’s almost time to say goodbye to Cambodia. The past two and a half weeks have been really memorable – pushing my body to my limits on a bike to get to the temples of Angkor, unleashing my inner Indiana Jones while exploring sometimes deserted ruins, seeing bats taking off into the night, riding on a bamboo train, lazing around in Kampot (a consequence of rainy season), refining my bargaining skills, and the surprising urbanscape of Phnom Penh…

I also visited the Killing Caves in Phnom Sampeau, and the S-21 Prison turned Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. These places gave me chills, eerie reminders of the atrocities that occurred here less than 40 years ago. It made me think of how I felt in Sarajevo, Bosnia every time I walked through a cemetery from my hostel into the Old Town and seeing so many tombstones of people that died within a span of a few years. (Co-)incidentally, it was a year ago since I was there…

For the most part, my posts are positive, and I like to focus on the good of humanity, but being in these places brings into my mind the cruelty and destruction, the bloodshed and violence that humanity is also capable of. So many hearts stopped beating, so many dreams died for unjustifiable reasons…

And I think, my heart is still beating, my dreams are still alive. It would be a shame to let them go to waste.