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…

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“Living” in Tbilisi

I have had an incredible August so far. Perhaps unusually, the summer has normally been a time where I have worked. In fact, I’ve worked every summer since I’ve been an adult save for one when I was “studying” in Mexico for five weeks in 2007 (“studying” in quotations because really, I don’t remember much studying and remember too much tequila – but that’s another story). This is the first time in the summer since then that I’ve been travelling – and it’s been wonderful and packed with so much more than what I can put into words…

Since leaving Mostar on 4 August until arriving in Tbilisi on 14 August, I’ve gone hiking in the highlands of Bosnia; found some really great nightlife spots in Belgrade; stayed with family in London and was treated to delicious home-made Filipino food; and met up with friends in London, Dusseldorf, and Brussels, grateful for the opportunity to meet up with wonderful people that I met on previous travels last year. But whenever I’ve gotten comfortable in a place, it was time to leave…

Which brings me to Tbilisi – the capital city of Georgia with a population of almost 1.5 million people. For me, Tbilisi has been an incomparable blend of modern and traditional, shiny and glistening to rotten and crumbling, a place where I’ve been the recipient of indecipherable, unstopping stares to receiving some of the warmest hospitality that I’ve ever experienced, and that which transcends the language barriers that certainly exist. Figuring things out for yourself is an outright challenge, as Georgian has its own written script, one which I know only a handful of characters at best. And the most common second language isn’t English – it’s Russian – a language I don’t speak! There’s much to see and do, although I’m content if I leave the hostel some time in the afternoon and walk somewhere that I haven’t yet seen. I’ve been here for five days and don’t yet know when I’ll be leaving, although I know I’ll be coming back at least twice – Tbilisi is pretty central in Georgia and I know I’ll be going to Kazbegi, Batumi, and Armenia some time in the next month and will have to return to Tbilisi before continuing on to my next destination. I’m in the region until mid-September, and I’ve given myself a month to explore the Caucasus, but I certainly don’t think it’s enough time as it is!

I’m staying at a very interesting, laid-back, “homey” hostel a few minutes walk from the central Freedom Square. It’s comfortable and inviting, though doesn’t boast of any eye-popping facilities. It’s gem, though, undoubtedly lies in its guests. There’s an Australian guy that has been here long-term, and by “long-term”, I’m talking about months in the double-digits. There’s also an Iranian guy who’s been here for about a half-year, and a Lebanese girl who arrived earlier this month who’s staying and working here for a couple of months. There’s also an American couple who I think has been here for a week and will be here for another week more. I feel that I’m falling into this realm of a handful of wonderful, incredible human beings with each additional night that I stay here. I want to leave and explore more of the amazingness that I know Georgia has to offer, but for some reason (fatigue? desire for familiarity?), can’t bring myself to pack up my bags and get on a marshrutka (shared mini-bus) and go!

In any case, I know that I’ll have an amazing time, either just “living” in Tbilisi (breathing, cooking, eating, drinking, interneting, meandering) or exploring more of Georgia…

Travel updates

Looks like I haven’t posted anything in two and a half months!  It’s not for lack of anything to write, that’s for sure.  Initially, I wanted to take some time out while on the Camino de Santiago, and then I didn’t know where to begin blogging again once I had finished my pilgrimage.  And from there, it was just one place after another, with me overwhelmed about doing my experiences justice by putting into words everything that I lived and sensed and immersed myself in.  This post is a humble attempt to summarize where I’ve been the past few months and where I’m going the next few.

The past that has passed

My trip through France was leading me from the centre of the country down to the southwest to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the starting point of the Camino de Santiago (Camino Frances, Way of St. James).  It was a great ten days exploring different cities in a country that I’d wanted to visit for so long, especially learning French throughout school.

The Camino de Santiago was an intense, unrelenting, unforgettable journey of the spirit that took my body from the Pyrenees all across northern Spain, walking on average between 20-30 kilometers a day with a rucksack on my back through rain, shine, and wind over all sorts of terrain.  I very much hope to write more about this experience because I believe that it has been the most significant thing that I have done with my life, and these mere words right now cannot possibly explain everything that my body, mind, and soul encountered during this blessed time.

I spent a few days in Santiago de Compostela, afforded with the luxury of sleeping in the same bed for more than one night and walking the same streets daily, even having a cafe that I frequented.  After moving around every day for the past month, it was a welcome change!  Then, I headed into northern Portugal for six days.  Portugal is a country that will always be on my list of places I want to return because of the friendliness and sincerity of the people.  Of course, there’s also the food, the port, the cities, the landscape, the Mediterranean way of life…

From Portugal, I flew to Morocco where I spent thirteen days.  Morocco is an explosion for the senses where everything hits you unapologetically and makes you feel more alive!  Everything from the exquisite food, the calls of the vendors in the souqs and its related hustle and bustle, the oppressive desert heat – it’s overwhelming and intoxicating, but somehow leaves you wanting more… DSC00669

After Morocco, it was back to Europe where I relaxed for a couple days in Madrid, then a few hours exploring Zurich and a few days in Budapest, Hungary where I did a few things that I hadn’t done during previous visits, like ride a railway line run by kids!  The conductor, of course, was an adult, but the selling and validating of the tickets were undertaken by kids 10-14 years old…

From Budapest, I took a train to Vienna where I didn’t do nearly as much as I would’ve liked due to an illness that unfortunately had me staying at hostels more often than seeing the city.  After moving on to Salzburg, however, I got my groove back and did plenty of hiking, including a 1400-metre ascent up the Untersberg mountain (part of the Alps), the accomplishment of which highly lifted my spirits!DSC01957

And now, I write this post on a couch in the common room of a hostel in Bled, Slovenia, where I have spent the past four nights.  Bled and the surrounding area is a haven for nature and adventure enthusiasts, and I’ve thorougly enjoyed the past few days strolling around Lakes Bled and Bohinj, taking a dip in pristine waters, appreciating a lazy boat ride, and of course, hiking – to waterfalls, through gorges, through quaint, picturesque towns…

Foreseeable future

There’s just under three months left of travel for me, and I do have at least a rough idea of where I’m going.  I’ll be heading to Ljubljana in a couple days, then southeast to Bosnia and Herzegovina (possibly with a short stop in Croatia), down to Montenegro and the wonderful
Adriatic Sea, then up to Serbia where I’ll catch a flight in Belgrade to London.

I’ll spend a few days in England with family and friends, then fly into Dusseldorf where I’ll meet up with a friend for a couple days before going to Brussels to meet up with another friend.  From there, I’ll fly to Tbilisi, Georgia – the beginning of a one month itinerary in the Caucasus which will also include visits to Armenia, and hopefully Azerbaijan, if I can secure a visa.

After this month, I’ll fly back to Belgrade from Tbilisi, and from there, round out the Balkans with forays into Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bulgaria before heading into Turkey where I’ll spend my last week or two before heading home!

Anyone care to join me?

Belgrade rising

There’s an energy and authenticity to this city, one of the largest in the Balkans, that I can easily appreciate. Often during travelling, I feel like I’m just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, walking around and doing the same thing. It’s a feeling that I dread and most times do my best to avoid; it’s usually not an issue here in Belgrade…

Zemun

Zemun – once the limit of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when the Turks controlled Belgrade

The beauty of Belgrade is that by and large, mass tourism is non-existent, or at the least much less obvious than most European cities. As such, it doesn’t put on a show for tourists and I can walk around the city and feel like I’m getting a sense of what the capital of Serbia is about. I think this is what makes Belgrade unique. True, a city like Belgrade has many similarities with other large cities – that faster pace of almost everything compared with being in the countryside or a small town; the pollution and noise of crazy speeding cars; higher prices (though still one of the most ridiculously cheap places I’ve visited in Europe). But to be sure, Belgrade as a city has its share of unique gems that easily attract the traveller’s eyes.

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September – October 2011 Itinerary

A rough itinerary of one of my most fascinating travels to date:

12-Sept-2011: Greyhound bus to Buffalo; flights: Buffalo – Chicago – Munich on United Airlines

13-Sept-2011: 5-hr layover in Munich which warranted leaving the airport to see a bit of the city centre, Munich – Budapest on Lufthansa, dinner and drinks in Budapest

14-Sept-2011: a bit of sightseeing in possibly my favourite city in the world; more crazy barhopping

15-Sept-2011: train from Budapest to Zagreb

16-Sept-2011: some sightseeing in the capital of Croatia, followed by afternoon bus to Zadar

17-Sept-2011: admiring the beauty of this Dalmatian city on the Adriatic Sea

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