Monthly Archive for June, 2005

Croatia/Slovenia

Greetings from sunny England. How did I get here? From a flight out of Slovenia. But hold on, wasn’t I in Bosnia just a few days ago? Well your confusion has something to do with that fact that I am a sloppy bastard in updating this blog. I have actually spent a week in Croatia (21st until 27th June), with a rushed train ride to Slovenia for my last minute flight on the 28th. So, now that you have your bearings, I will talk about Croatia!

From Mostar, I caught a bus to Dubrovnik, which is a city in the far south of Croatia. When I got there, I was pretty annoyed. Not because anyone had done me wrong, but rather it was exactly the type of destination I am trying to avoid on my trip: a tourist mecca. Dubrovnik, for you uneducated fools (which included me a week ago) was a powerful city state that has an impressive history, whereby it controlled all trade in the Balkan region (all important cross road from East to West), as well as successfully maintaining independence despite having the Ottomans on the East and the Venetians in the West constantly breathe down their neck.

Drubovnik

But back to complaining. The poet Lord Byron called it “the Pearl of the Adriatic” in the early 19th century, whilst the playwright George Bernard Shaw said that ” … Those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik … “. Well, not on my first day. As far as I was concerned, it was just a city of tourists. Where the hell were the Croatians?! The prices are a rude shock, even by the standards of Australia, and all it was to me initially was just a big old stone city that was being abused for tourism – I even saw two Australians playing a didgeridoo next to the gates. Can someone please explain the link between an aristrocatic city state that adopted technology to become a leading naval and trading power, and the nomadic Australian indigenous people on the other side of the world, who would use technologies like petrol and glue, to get high?

But as I said, that was my first day. On my second day I walked the walls of the city (two damn hours in 30 degrees of sun), and did the audio tour (a rip off, but I was willing to give the city another chance to impress me). And impressed I was! That is, in the way they ran their republic. Dubrovnik is best described as a living museum. And those annoying tourists that inflated the prices, actually helped recreate the city as it was in its hey-day: a busling, freedom-loving, vibrant city that respected its citizens and understood how the world worked, which in turn enabled it to survive for so long.

But having said that, it is the history of Dubrovnik that hooked me. As a tourist destination, it is the type of place you bring your girlfriend too when you are 50, while your wife stays at home. Actually, with the money you would need, you probably would be able to afford to convince them both to join you, as you do the typical tourist package holiday. (Manged to offend Aborigines and women..something is missing…on yeah, American bashing). And those loud freakin’ yanks, who seem to think US Dollars can be used on anything from souvenir shopping to grocery shopping at the local store (“what? You can’t give me exact change in US dollars??”). So whilst I’m doing some history reading now, I was glad to get the hell out of there.

I met Kelly in Belgrade. Kelly, a varsity girl from white-trash America a crazy hippy from Ohio, who three days after she had arrived in Dubrovnik, discovered the city was actually not on an island but on the mainland, and learnt the words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ two weeks after she had travelled through a region that speaks the same language – had been doing the same route as myself. Actually to give her credit, she is hilarious and a lot of fun. Even though she has a laugh the beats my own in terms of loudness, she is the type of person that gets along with anyone. And so that is how I met Steve and Alice from California, at the hostel.

With little convincing, I ditched my plans for Hvar island and joined them to the island of Corcula, with a group that also included George the Swede, and two Canadians called Kyle and Zoe. When the ship docked at Corcula, and we were walking off the vessel, I saw an Australian flag on the backpack of the girl standing in front of me. Without even thinking, I said “Are you an Aussie?”, and before we knew it, another three people joining our group – two Aussie girls from Sydney (Epping) and a Canadian that those girls had found on the Greek island of Ios six weeks earlier. Add the two Swedish girls Kelly and I had become friends with from Belgrade, and who joined us the next night, and as you can imagine, we had some good times!

Apart from drinking games, and celebrating the Swedish mid-summer , we got wicked sun tans. The island wasn’t all that impressive – the kids explored the ENTIRE town comprehensively in half an hour, and the beaches were disappointing (although one day, we ferried out to one of the islets and had a great time – despite the incredible roughness of the rock). Three nights later, Kelly, myself, the two Aussies (Rach and Katie) and Matt the Canadian from Ios, caught a Ferry to Split. I fell asleep on the ship for an hour or two, and when I awoke, there were two South African girls and their mother at our feet. Within half an hour, when we hit the first port of Hvar, they had asked us if we wanted to join them, and 15 minutes later, I was organising my stuff to get off the boat! And so I spent another night on an island, on the much more pictureresque Hvar, with Kath, Janice and wait for it, their mother – Sheila!

Swedish midsummer

After learning South African, I managed to somehow get to Slovenia that next day, meeting up with Kelly and Co, just in time for my flight the next day. Talk about tight timing though. I managed to spend a few hours taking pictures in Ljubjiana. And from what I have seen, and read in one of their local english newspapers, I hope to be back there again.

Croatia (and Slovenia) are very much Western European countries (although the Slovenes seem adamant on aligning themselves as Central Europeans – regionalism seems to be the new trend in Europe). They definitely are not Eastern Europe though. The difference from Croatia with Serbia and Bosnia could not be more stark. Everything from the climate, the prices, to the attitudes of the people. Whilst the average wages in Croatia and Slovenia are dirt low just like the rest of the Balkan region, there is this feeling (from me, that is) that the countries are developed and well on the road to rich country status. Slovenia in a recent survey, ranks higher than Greece and Portugal in per capita income, and has a higher satisfaction rate amongst the local population.

Croatians and Sovenians despise the Yugoslavic tag – a reminder of the 50-100 years that in modern times has replaced their previous historical identities. Both countries are what started the original Balkans wars, as the Yugosav state disintegrated, but because of Croatia’s tourist industry and Slovenia’s relative autonomy under the Yugoslav Federation, it meant that they managed to get their acts together as countries fairly quickly – unlike the rest of the region like screwed-over-Macedonia.

Would you believe, in Dubrovnik, I stumbled on a museum that had an exhibit on Australian-Croatian ties. After the boring crap about some Croat living in Wagga Wagga, it was interesting to see how Australia helped the Croats achieve their dream of nationhood. Serbian and Croatian were previously considered dialects of the same language, but in the 1970s sand 1980s, students in Australia pressured the government to recognise Croatian to be taught as a separate language in the higher school certificate. There was also a token Croatian embassy during the late ’70s, which symbolically helped the cause, even though it was shut down (but the damage had been done).

A thing I have noticed in every country I visited in the last month, is the question of identity. What is it? These are new countries, and like Australia has in the last century, are struggling to find an identity. Or rather, differentiate themselves from their neighbours. The Croatian language is a classic example – it is literally the same language as Serbian. But they are adding new words, and even changing existing words, just to make it unique. It makes little sense to want to create differences in a language, but it makes plenty of sense when it is one of the few things to differentiate yourself from your extremely loathed neighbour/s. Religion, language, and historical achievements are what these countries cling to differentiate themselves.

The French and and Dutch voted no to the new European constitution, and quite rightly so, because it is a complicated, esoteric document, that was put together by elitists. Nevertheless, it is fairly evident that despite this setback, the European continent will one day, evolve into a superpower comparable to the empires of the past. The present difficulties with support for the Union, are because it is happening too fast – this European empire has been in the works for over 30 years now. With such a diverse region, it needs to evolve slowly – it can’t just happen overnight. However before everyone gets hot and heavy about the wording of a constitution, they need to remember the original reason why the European Union was formed, and that was to prevent another world war. The border disputes, and tensions in the Balkans – as well as the economic difficulties – could be made a non-issue by adding these countries to the Union. Anyone listening?

Drubovnik moon

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Who would have thought that bombs, death and bullet holes in buildings would ruin a city? And when I say ruin it, it has nothing to do with war – but tourism!

I spent four nights in Sarajevo, and a night in Mostar – where both cities are beautiful in themselves, but whose local economies are inflated by international organisations, and the European Union has created a facade of a well-functioning country that is actually run by the mafia. In between dodging landmines, putting up with Americans at the hostel who get defensive on discussions about their screwed up economy, and seeing money flow out of my hands like I was in a western nation, I feel like I have learnt little about Bosnian culture despite staying for nearly a week. Although as the Serbs had me believe, there is nothing to learn, because Bosnians are just Serbs that happen to pray with their bums up, five times a day. Hmm, I don’t know about that.

When you enter Bosnia, you don’t need a sign to tell you, because the change in landscape could not be more dramatic. From flat, green Serbia to mountainous Bosnia, with farmers at times growing their crops at 45 degree angles! Bosnia and Herzegovina are geographic terms, with the later suddenly becoming flatter and drier, reflecting the intense heat that resembles the Croatian climate as opposed to the colder inland climate.

Dotted along the terrain are cities bearing the scars of war – that one-by-one, and totally unsuspecting to the local population, were sieged by Croatians and Serbians, as communications were broken between cities during the war. The modern historical term is genocide, with the number of deaths totaling 250 000. And our world let this happen for four years, before something was done about it. My tour guide in Sarajevo ended his talk about the war with a joke, which he said we should interpret as we want to, but clearly illustrates the commonly held view as to why the West did not act sooner: a Bosnian was digging a hole. He kept digging and digging, and then a friend of his asked what was he doing. “I’am looking for oil”. Apparently one Iraqi’s life, living in an oil rich nation, is worth a lot more than a person living in a oil-poor country. Reminds me of what is happening in Africa today, and how we all choose to be ignorant on the crisis there

The tour guide had a bone to pick with the United Nations, and his anger illustrates how the UN was designed for a bi-polar world, and how its peace keeping efforts are inadequate in the modern world. A Swedish woman whom I met on the road, was telling me during the war that her boyfriend was in Bosnia with the UN forces, and he came back fatter than when he left! The reason being, the UN effectively could not do anything, and they just sat there watching with their hands tied behind their backs. So he just spent his days, drinking and eating, and basically having a holiday, whilst 1600 of Sarajevo’s children were murdered. The city of Sarajevo was under heavy siege for 3 1/2 years, and yet it took NATO 5 days to bomb the surrounding Serb forces into withdrawal.

Another story that made me sick with disgust, was with the media. There is apparently a Frenchman, who filmed a woman dying on the streets. Rather than help her, he just kept filming – and in America has been awarded with a Pulitzer price. Another story is how journalists would pay children to run across “sniper alley”. The infamous Sniper Alley as a road that runs alongside the river Miljacka in the middle of the town. The Serb forces sat on the surrounding hills, and one-by-one killed civilians. Read more about the seige here.

The city

It was interesting to hear about life during the war. The top item on the black market was make-up! An advantage touted of war, is that there is no television! As such, Bosnians are extremely well read, and once done, would use these books for winter fires. But more so, it was interesting to hear about Bosnian spirit during the war. Every man and woman was fully mobilised during the war, and they never let their spirits down. A joke that illustrates Bosnian humour is as follows: A Bosnian is on a kids swing, moving back and forth, when another Bosnian yells out “what are you doing?”. To which the first Bosnian replied “just fucking with a sniper”.

Whilst the Bosnians have a sense of humour, deeply rooted in sarcasm, I also found the youth to be wild. I caught a cab from the bus station to the town centre, and at one point a tram was running beside us. On the back of the tram was a metal plate/bar, which I suppose is used to tow the tram with a truck. However, what I saw was a little boy of about eight sitting on it, making broom broom sounds like he was car racing! Just above him, on the back right of the tram, a little girl with her friends, was sticking her leg out whenever they passed a pole or a person! My view that the youth of Sarajevo are wild was further impressed by the sight of the kids playing in the main square of the old town. As I sat there eating my burek, a bunch of boys were shooting at each other with toy guns. I know they are just toys, but seeing as the country is still trying to rebuild itself from war, I was really bothered by that sight. I am not sure why you need to know all that, but it really made an impression on me watching these kids act the way they did.

Disturbing

Sarajevo has become the focus of world attention three times in recent history: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that sparked World War I, the 1984 Winter Olympics, and the Balkan war in the 1990s that left 11,000 people in Sarajevo dead. Despite the tour operator’s best efforts to talk up the city due to its great alpine scenery which made it suitable for the Olympics, he knew that the only reason why people came to his city was because of the war. You could feel how this annoyed him, when he clearly let it be known that the only time we would ask questions about the war was when we were at the Jewish cemetery. After giving us a 10 second period to ask questions, he said “Okay, question time over. Lets go.” The war is still very recent memory, and every family was affected, he would tell me a little later just between the two of us. But they are trying to move on, and the impression I have that they want to move on, and leave the past behind. I don’t see that as unreasonable! So whilst tourism is helping inject money into economies of the main cities, the actual reason for this tourism, is going to mean the pain of the past will not disappear quickly enough.

The country is actually divided into two countries: The Bosniak/Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska (RS). The Federation and RS governments were charged with overseeing most government functions.”Democracy” exists, under the supreme authority of Paddy Ashdown, who runs the Office of the High representative in order to implement the civilian side to the government, on a mandate from the UN Security Council. However our main man Paddy has come to admit that his job now, is to be able to abolish his job! It will be a long road for Bosnia, but with such a strong EU investment, there is potential. A five-year plan to eliminate the heavy presence of international military officers, began last year. Here is hoping that when they leave, security will be a non-issue (they still have to sort out the fact that the country has 16 police forces) and that they get what they really need – foreign investment – to rebuild this extremely fragile country.

One story worth mentioning is a night out we had in the city. The girls in the hostel where whining about sitting around, and wanted to hit the town for some night clubs. So after we sculled our bottle of beer (two litres for three Aussie dollars…and yes, it tasted every bit of the cheapness) we headed for some clubs. However on the way, we heard music from a shop along the road. It was a sort of bar, with about 20 people that were in the 45 to 65 age group. The Americans with me were shocked at the atmosphere (which I felt was very similar to Greece). The “oldie’s” would buy us drinks, and have us wiggle our bums, dancing to that oriental music infused by the Ottomans when the Balkan peninsula was under its rule. And as we would dance and dance, and speak in broken English, every so often they would tell us why they were so happy. “It is not 1992-1995 anymore. It is not 1992-1995 anymore. Let us celebrate!”. Whether it be war or peace, the Bosnians still know how to laugh.


Further reading
, found by a fellow traveller:
http://www.boyntonweb.net/Policy/Balkan/Bosnian.htm

Serbia

Zdravo!

Some background first: A few days before I left for my Balkan Bash of a trip, whilst I was still in Greece, I posted a question on Lonely Planet‘s website, on a thing called the ThornTree. Basically I posted my itinerary, and asked people to recomend how I can improve it. And that they did!

I arrived in the city of Ni?° in Serbia in the late afternoon from Skopje (Macedonia), which was a city I was told to visit by one of the ThornTreers. It was raining buckets of water. Every person I asked for help at the bus station didn’t speak English. I knew absolutely nothing about this city, other than it was a semi-major city in Serbia. Heck, I didn’t even know how to pronounce Ni?°! (It is pronounced, and spelt ‘Nish’ in Latin script). And with only ten Euros in my wallet, and a bladder that was about to explode, I had a bit of a problem. I suppose, it is one of those situations when you pull out a cigarette, and have a puff with the look on your face that says “Yeah shit, what now?”. Except I don’t smoke. And I didn’t want to say shit, because any reference to the excretionary system of my body, only reminded me how badly I needed to go to the toilet.

Anyone to cut a long story short, I checked into this over-priced classic communist hotel near the centre of the town (luckily, the bus station was a five minute walk from the centre). And at 6pm, I crashed on my bed, sleeping for well over 16 hours.

I woke up the next morning at about 10.30, and as I was about to enter the shower, my hotel phone rang. “Hello this is Marko”. Um, hi I replied, thinking who the hell is Marko. It turned out Marko was the guy who insisted I visit Nish on the ThornTree! He was in the foyer, and asked if I wanted to join him for a beer! And the 10 minutes between that phone-call and when I reached the foyer, I was wondering how the f..k did this guy find me! It turns out, he had read my post about Macedonia on my blog, and he logically assumed I would be in Nish by now. He also assumed I would check into the Hotel Ambassador, because most taxi drivers take tourists there. He asked the hotel reception if his Australian friend Elias had checked in (he knew my name from the website), and if he could call me because he didn’t have my number or something like that. So in other words, I got stalked!!!!

However Marko wasn’t some weird person, and his intention of a quick chat over a beer ended up turning into a two day fully-guided tour. I think he felt a little obliged to help me out, as he was the reason I was in Nish. But nevertheless, what is a fairly freaky story, turned into an absolute God send as I was able to learn about Yugoslav and Serbian history, politics and culture. We got along so well, that I even had dinner with his family, and they insisted I stay the night to save money! (Which I didn’t, but only because I couldn’t get a refund on the hotel Marko helped me find earlier that day). I was lucky because Marko has an intimate knowledge of history, so that he was able to tell me things that even the average Serbian didn’t know (like a hidden, old building, where the concept of Yugoslavia was created).

Nish is a bustling city, with a smart looking crowd, and a powerful history that if you know what you are looking for, will blow you away. Had it not been for Marko, I doubt I would have such a favourable opinion of the city. For example, my second hotel that Marko help me find was in the hot springs that were famous even in Roman times. And between my hotel on the edge of the city and the city-centre, was Mediana and the Skull Tower. The city also has an impressive fortress.

Skull Tower

I spent two days in Nish, and about a week in Belgrade, which included a day trip to Novi Sad. Most of the travellers I met in Belgrade were there as a transit point for the more exotic Bulgaria, or the scenic Croatia. However everyone seemed to love the city ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú it is one of the best cities I have even been too, and some very experienced travellers at the hostel agreed with that claim. The city lies on the outfall of the Sava river to the Danube river, which in itself is impressive. The city is built on several hills, and every day you stayed, you would find a new reason to stay. Whether it was the nightlife, or the friendly people, the beach or the archaeology ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú Belgrade is a hidden gem. Probably what makes Belgrade so impressive, is that it has been was under some form of attack 54 times since AD 1. And with each battle, a new conqueror has added a fresh aspect to the cities culture, giving the city a very unique character, not just in architecture, but in spirit that you feel.

Children playing music in the middle of Belgrade?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s Pedestrian walk

Novi Sad, which is the capital of the autonomous province of Vojvodina, was a different place yet again. The architecture was completely different, which is due to the fact that that part of Serbia was never controlled by the Ottoman Empire and was saved from their uncreative building works and graced with the more stately Austro-Hungarian. The people, however is what struck me, as they looked different from the rest of the Serbia I had seen. They looked a lot more Hungarian, and the Slavic look which is clearly evident in Nish and Belgrade, was almost non-existent.

In Belgrade, I met this girl Irena, whom I went for a coffee or three with. She also introduced me to her friends ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú girls whom were drop dead gorgeous, and guys who were super friendly, and well educated (all of them). Actually, it turns out these friends of hers are heavily involved in the Democratic Party in the country, a centrist party that has a lot of influence in the Coalition government. I also met countless other people, but the point I am getting to is that despite all these conversations I had with different people, I found a remarkably similar attitude to a lot of subjects.

The biggest thing to mention, is the nationalism of the Serbs. Marko summed this attitude best when he said that the Croatians, Bosnians, Macedonians and Serbians are basically one race, with the only difference being the Croats are Catholic, the Bosnians Muslim, and the Serbs Orthodox. It was a view I heard several times. Having heard what the Macedonians think, as well as the Bosnians (where I am now), I must say, it is very interesting to hear this. I never knew much about the Balkans conflicts before my trip, but I definitely feel I have learnt a lot, with an extra dimension you wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t get from reading a text book.

Belgrade Fortress

Most young people, especially the English-speaking ones, want to leave the country (Irena reckons). But it is this intense nationalism and patriotism, that makes them want to do it only temporarily ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú as opposed to Macedonia for example, where people just want to to leave permanently! There is a strong sense of identity in Serbia, but perhaps, a little too strong.

The economy seems to be a real sticking point. Mitcho, a middle aged man I met in the street when I was trying to find a landmark, said religion and the economy were the root of all the problems in the region. What he said about the economy though is what was interesting. The average Serbian makes peanuts, much like the surrounding countries. However I would argue, the cost of living was super cheap, and so it didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t matter. But the problem is that when you hear your neighbour, like Hungary, has workers being paid twice as much for the same job type in Serbia, with a similar cost of living, you get annoyed. Or as Mitcho said, you feel used.

The owner of the hostel, a mammoth of a guy who served in the military, and was fairly intelligent, told me the unemployment rate in Serbia is 34%, which I thought was a little far fetched. However I heard from a fellow traveller today that it is something like 50%, so it possibly is true, given she must of heard it from a different source.

Marko reckons Serbia should join the European Union, but not for a while. The economy is just too weak, that if it were, the Serbs would just be economically raped and become slaves to the more developed industries and companies in Germany and the UK. And yet whenever I would get into a political discussion with my friend Irena, she would passionately moan at how the Serbs just cant seem to move forward and work together. So on the one hand, you have this strong sense of Nationalism and superiority as a country, but an inability to move forward because the Serbs just cant work together. There is this feeling of being stuck.

The passport thing seems to annoy Serbs. A guy that helped me find my hostel for example, was making some small chit chat until we found it. After a few questions about my trip, he immediately launched into a whinge at how he cant do what I can do ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú a lament I heard several times over by others. Serbians need to have a visa for every country they visit, with the exception of the former Yugoslav countries. This points to a bigger attitude at how annoyed they are about their country. At the hostel I was staying at, one of the guys working there told us all that there simply isn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t any hope in the country. One of the Americans at the hostel mentioned it after, when we were on our own, and said how sad that was.

Nationalism and economics aside though, hearing about the Kosovo war was very interesting. Whilst I would join the conversations the hostel workers would have with the other travellers, I think I had the most in depth conversation about this with Marko. He showed me the military headquarters in Nish, which was the last part of Nish to be reconstructed. What was cool though, was how the smart bombs that hit it, didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t even touch the neighbouring building!

Tanks

However the most striking thing I heard from Marko, was how NATO used cluster bombs. Cluster bombs don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t damage buildings. They are purely used to kill enemy soldiers, well technically anyway. Marko?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s parents, whom work at the university, were on their way home one day, and five minutes earlier, a street they had to walk though, was hit by cluster bombs, in the middle of the city. I met Marko?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s parents. They didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t look like soldiers to me.

As an electronic university student, Marko would also explain to me the electrical bomb, whose purpose is purely to burn fuses. When they bombed the electricity plant, it was in the middle of the night, and for a full five minutes the explosion created such a strong light that it was like a sunny summer day!

From the time I landed in Athens, I was told by every male I spoke to, that Serbian women are the most beautiful women in the world. Serbian men trumpet this fact as well (its not opinion, I came and saw ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú it is fact!). Anyway, I just felt like I had to mention that because it is such a hot topic.

It is Saturday night, and I am in Sarajevo in Bosnia, which is a whole story in itself (I arrived two nights ago). Last night I taught the Americans in the hostel some drinking games, and three Irish girls arrived today and based on our conversation this morning, tonight will be trouble. So I better fill myself up with food. Ciao!

Belgrade in the evening

Macedonia

This is driving me nuts. I have just spent the last hour or two going through my e-mail, and my Internet-cafe neighbour is having cybersex with some Arab. Actually, I think he is in Turkey, but she has been showcasing some Arabic words. She started with teaching him Macedonian – yelling “da! da! da! (yes! yes yes!) – and now she has mellowed, calling him her ‘lotus’ and asking “why has this happened to us, I want to be near you. Honey” whilst smoking a cigarette. Think of a phone-sex line, where there is a fat woman on the other end moaning and groaning. Except this girl isn’t fat – just ugly. And really loud. Really fucking loud. Damn it, I did it. I tried to not swear in case any kiddies are reading this, but I feel some much better now. FUCKING SHUT UP.

Okay, much better.

Ohrid. Pictureresque.

Macedonia has been quite delightful (Greece get over it – I am not calling them Skopje, or the (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). I got in Friday night, and tomorrow morning (Wednesday) I will be leaving my temporary home for the last few days, in Ohrid. Ohrid is described as the tourist Mecca of Macedonia. Lots of Churches here as well, which goes back to Ohrid’s historical importance. It is right beside Lake Ohrid, which is approximately 2-3 million years old, and is one of the world’s oldest lakes and the Balkans biggest. Given its age, there are a lot of unique biological aspects, like that freakin’ animal that sounds like a baby laughing. It took me half an hour to work out it came from the lake.

“I love you honey. I. Love. You” Can someone please get this girl a vibrator?

Ohrid is a great tourist destination. The Old Town looks like any modern cosmopolitan city’s shopping arcade, with the latest fashion, jewellery stores, and cafes and restaurants abound (although funnily, about 90 per cent of these restaurants either have ‘Pizza’ in their name or make it a focal point of their menu). It is very scenic with the surrounding hills, and the lake. But the best thing is the cost of living: my first two nights were in a fully equipped private apartment, which cost the equivalent of 10 Euros a night. My remaining three nights were in a private room in the Old Town, for about six Euros.

And then there was the food. You could eat yourself silly and not want to think about food and drink for another 24 hours, with just 10 Euros. A main meal, like lets say – Pizza – costs about 100 Denars. My Hungarian Goulash tonight cost 150 Denars (60 Denars to the Euro). Add a few drinks, and a salad, and you could pay 300 Denars (five Euros) and be very satisfied. There are high-speed internet cafes all over the place, asking for one Euro an hour. Why I am so surprised, is that although the cost of living is comparable to Albania, the place looks every part like a modern European city (unlike Albania, which is a permanent pile of rubble and construction). And minus the foreign tourists; whilst plenty of Australians come, they are all ethnic Macedonians. I stood out like a sore thumb with the locals. I would like to think it’s because I am a good looking guy, but I think it’s just because I looked so different to everyone. Although I must admit, the women did tease a lot…

Yes, it is true. The women here are beautiful. And they definitely know how to shake that arse. Apologies to all you feminists out there, but if you are wondering why you are 35 and still can’t find a husband, maybe you should learn from your Slavic sisters when it comes to style. Unfortunately I have been told that I missed out this year – the fashion this year is tight jeans with stomach showing. Last year it was mini-skirts with g-strings showing. Just as well I came this year – I had enough trouble trying to conceal my grunting at the glamour?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s walking past me.

Chruches. Everywhere in Ohrid.

However for every positive, there is a downside: the men. Absolute scum bags. Not all, but a lot of con artists. I was seen as a walking money bag. You would as well, if you worked a minimum wage job in any developed country! The problem, as everyone would complain to me, was the economy – which I suppose is why Eastern European countries and the Balkans are famous for these con-artists, as their economies are still a mess. Half the people I spoke too dreamt of one day leaving – however the other half were very proud of the country. I think my second landlord, was the most eloquent in explaining this to me.

Nikola is a 38-year old university graduate (in economics), working for the police as an investigator. Actually, he was in a team of six that was selected by the US state Department for anti-terrorism training, so this guy is no monkey. He has three kids, and a modest house in the Old Town, where he rents the top rooms for some extra cash. He, like everyone else, said the economy was very weak, with no developed export markets and no opportunities for work. The wages are super low – Natasha, a girl from a tourist office, was telling me she gets paid 200 Euros a month. Eljah, a pimple-faced 18-year-old tax driver whom I used several times as my personal chauffeur, says 200 Euros is a lot – he said he averages about five Euros a day.

However unlike Natasha and Eljah, Nikola realises this is just temporary and is willing to sit it out. “Every country has problems at different stages. In this age for Macedonia, it is the economy”. He sees it as a temporary phase as the country develops itself. However what we both agreed on was that Macedonia desperately needed to be part of the European Union (EU) for that ‘phase’ to ever pass. However with the French and Dutch rejecting the new EU constitution these last few weeks, it might mean it will take longer than hoped. (It will happen – as Nikola said, the EU has become too strong to just disappear now.)

I become very fond of my afternoon chats with Nikola. Despite the fact he hasn’t used English since primary school, I could feel his English improving by the minute, as we used sign language to have conversations about global imperialism and the rise of India and China (and America?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s future), as well as what Macedonia needed to do to get ahead. If anyone was watching the time when I was saying Macedonia needed to look at emerging industries, not old economy industries such as biotechnology against agriculture – I think they would have died laughing. How do you explain biotechnology to someone who doesn’t speak English?

Macedonia is a fairly small country, with about two million inhabitants. The country gets bullied around by its neighbours because of its size, and its economic dependence on countries like Greece. However the economy is the only bad thing about this place, and it is only bad if you want to live here. If you want a holiday, I highly recommend Ohrid. It is four hours from Thessalonica in Greece.

As for my experience in the country, it has been okay. I went to a nightclub on Saturday on my own, which was a little weird, because I have never been to a nightclub on my own. I had to pay five times the normal cover charge (like I cared, it was only five euros). I met some girls there who were very playful until the drunk mafia guy came. He was a Melbourne-based Macedonian, and he had a gun on him. He got me free drinks, so I wasn’t complaining. However, I wasn’t arguing with him either.

Macedonian flag

But I have had enough being the rich tourist amongst all the other tourists, I have to get out of here. I better go and pack my bags – my bus to Nish in Serbia leaves in just over three hours!

Update:Who would have thought, that a 5am bus trip to Skopje (transit point for Nish), would have me sitting next to a tall, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, beautiful woman who was super intelligent and from a wealthy family (a rare thing in itself in Macedonia)? We got cosy on the bus and spent three hours talking non-stop! But the reason I am including this update is because she was able to explain something to me which finally helped me understand a major issue, and which I think deserves to be included on my posting about the country.

Macedonia is now being divided into two versions – traditional Macedonia, and the Albanian Macedonia, whom refuse to integrate into the local population, and adopt the country’s traditions and culture. There was a big war in North Macedonia in 2001, and a treaty was signed. We are not talking about some petty differences here. There are some huge tensions, which I sensed, but didn’t understand. The war is still recent memory, and it doesn’t seem like the issue is resolved. Something bad is brewing.

There is a a lot of racism in the country over Albanians. Why you may ask? Well it is not the Albanians that have settled and adopted Macedonian life, but the refugees and illegal immigrants that flooded the country during the Kosovo war. Ethnic Albanians now constitute about 20 per cent of the population, and have become such an influential group, that the country has to accommodate for them. The Albanian language just recently became an official language of the country, and various other measures have been put in place, which quite rightly, are making the population quite angry. As Karolina lamented, she feels like she doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t know what her identity is. To get a pubic sector job, she is required to learn an entirely new language! It is a bit like the Hispanic situation in America, where all these illegal immigrants that crossed the border from Mexico, have become such a powerful minority, that the politicians are scared of them. And like the Spanish kids, they refuse to speak Macedonian and speak only Albanian.

To cut a long story short: we haven’t seen the last of the Balkan wars. The South of Serbia, and the North of Macedonia will be on our television screens in the near future.

As for Macedonia’s economy, she was also able to explain a few things to me as she is an economics student. It appears the country is trying too hard to satisfy EU requirements to become a European Union member – rather than actually make any efforts to develop the country itself. It seems like pretty much all of Macedonia’s problems, stem from the former Yugoslavia. With respects to the economy, what she meant was that all the industries and factories were in other parts of Yugoslavia – not present-day Macedonia. The result was that the disunion left the country with an inheritance of nothing.

Albania

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes”. Well, I have another two certainty’s to add to the list: Japanese tourists are everywhere, and cab drivers are scum bags worldwide. But rather than complain, I want to tell you the stories I heard for this enigmatic country.

I have just spent three days (and two nights) visiting Albania. Whilst I was only there for a short time, I was satisfied in what I learnt, and absolutely fascinated. I stayed in Saranda, which is a port-city at the south of the country, near the Greek border. It is opposite the Greek island of Corfu. I stayed in an area called “exsamilia” which means ‘six miles’ – the six mile stretch of land under Saranda, which ends where Corfu starts. Deep rural territory! The south of the country is very Greek influenced, and I had to rely on my Greek for the entire time of my trip. Not only has Greek always been popular in the South, but some one-million plus Albanians (and that is a conservative estimate) have lived in Greece for some period of time. The people I stayed with, fled the country when the Iron curtain finally fell in 1990, and like so many others, recently returned to begin a new life.

Albania is one of the world’s most misunderstood countries – and I emphasis the mis-understanding of its people. Until 1990, it was a communist country run by the iron-fist of Hoxha (pronounced”Hodja”), as first-secretary (pronounced “dictator”). Access to the outside world was completely shut off, and Hoxha created a country that was so similar to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that it sent a shiver up my spine. His death in 1985, which is still being lamented, led to the country becoming the last domino to tumble in Eastern Europe’s communist downfall.

Under Hoxha’s rule, organised religion was banned. The entire population was spread out into small villages, with freedom of movement prohibited, even to the next town. Agriculture was collectivised. People were paid a daily wage of 200 Lekke, with no one in the country receiving more than 500. Young men served in the military, for I think three-years, and had to do nine-days annually again to retrain them with new weapons and methods. The country was turned literally into a military state, as there was a constant fear that Albania’s neighbours would invade. Cinema’s were available, but forget about love stories: the only movies shown were ones that where with the party line, namely being war. Television was first introduced in 1970, as an outlet for the governments propaganda. The 'bunkers', which served As entry points into the nations underground tunnel network
A tunnel Network connects the entire country, with small-domed bunkers dotting the country side for entry/exit into the tunnel networks. You would see these bunkers in the most remote, unpredictable areas.

If you criticised the regime, you were done for. If you forcefully pushed a woman in any sort of form, good-bye you. There was no crime, no criticism. Everyone lived like one big family. People felt safe; however they would wet their pants when I would ask about the Secret Police. It seems old habits die hard – such was the fear in the country.

Despite what people think, there was democracy. Polling booths opened at 6 and closed at 6.30. You could vote for anyone you wanted, as long as they were a legally recognised political party: which for all that time, was only the communist party. Election results for the communists always turned out to support it 99.98 per cent of the time. The other 0.02% were grandmothers who dropped their glasses. Although even if there were opposition candidates, I would not be surprised if, by their own free will, a majority would vote communist. They had been convinced to be happy with what they had.

As I said earlier, a daily wage consisted of 200 Leke. With 300 Lekke, you could buy 15 kg of bread, to give you an idea of the cost of living. To pay off your debt to the government for living in an apartment, you simply had to work one day a month. Theoretically people worked eight hours a day, starting at 7am, although most would doze off, clocking a few hours and spending the rest of the day chatting. They worked seven days a week. There were opportunities for entertainment, and there were no restrictions on procreation! But with such work hours, no one stayed out late. In fact, if you were seen out past 12am, you were in trouble. You would be criticised as being lazy and against the country, and you would be put in the prisons. To this day, no one knows what happened in those prisons.

When foreigners would come into the country, or Albanians studied abroad to help with a skill shortage, they had to get their story right before they came in. They were told to tell everyone that the outside world is a mess. There is no electricity, clean water, pure lawlessness. They were told to say Albania was one of the luckiest countries in the world. Given that Albanians had no contact with the outside world, is it any surprise Hoxha is treated like a god?

In 1990, the communists were ousted. The country basically turned into a barbaric society of lawlessness. In 1997, over 70 per cent of the population lost their savings in pyramid schemes, which resulted in nationwide uproar. Groups broke into the military barracks, and guns were stolen. There was open street warfare on the roads. People would shoot at someone, just for the sake of target practice. As such, in 1990 and 1997, you saw a large majority of the population spread to neighbouring countries. One guy I met left with his friends in the winter, and trekked through the mountains to get to Greece. It snows a lot in winter in Northern Greece. But they were desperate.

Having been to Greece several times since 1990, I grew up with the Greek racism. That they were cunning, thieves, and no-good people. I believed that to the day I got into Albania. Even though I don’t like to think of people as unequal, I just always had this perception that Albanians were scum. How wrong was I! And how wrong is racial tension in the rest of the Balkans, where Albanians are shunned. I have never in my life been treated with more respect and hospitality. Although I had a negative experience with a taxi driver when the bus dropped me off at the border, that was only because he over-charged me – but this was more a case of my inexperience as a first time traveller rather than him being a bad person.

Everywhere I went, people would shout me drinks. Even my taxi drivers! On my way out of the country, I had to catch a bus for Corca to Progradec. During that one hour or so, I sat next to a middle aged Albanian man. He did not speak English or Greek; I did not speak Albanian. So we had a conversation purely with sign language. He knew ten words in English which helped, however four of those consisted of “I don’t speak English”. Once we got off the bus, he insisted I go to his house for a coffee. There his son, who spoke English, could translate. They then told me, after ten minutes in the house, that they would drive me to the Macedonian border in the wife’s brother?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s taxi, free of charge!! I saved about 10 Euros, as well as the hassle of trying to find transport to the border. Who would do that in Sydney?

At no stage, did I ever feel unsafe, or disrespected. In fact, everyone took a genuine interest in looking after me. The people I stayed with literally treated me like their son. The people I met along the way, were extremely worried about the next stage of my journey without their help. They would go out of their way to help me. The only thing I was worried about, was trying to work out the right-fare for a cab fare, but I only had to worry about that once, at the beginning. The cost of living is incredibly cheap there – I was told I was ‘ripped off’ by this restaurant at Saranda: I paid the equivalent to five euros, and was absolutely stuffed!

A lot of the young hate communism. But the old, or rather people 35+, think of the old days with nostalgia. There are two reasons for this: poverty, and security.

For people born in the communist state, that knew of a country with complete security, harmony, and equality. When capitalism and democracy came in, they saw lawlessness and inequality. Young girls who previously could walk around the country in perfect security, have been poached for prostitution around the Balkans. People are living in extreme poverty, and are being forced to fend for themselves. We may find it absurd how people like them prefer communism and totalitarianism over capitalism and democracy, and yet we need to see it though their eyes: their experience in being ‘free’ has turned their country in an anarchy. What so free about not being able to feed and protect your family?
The inland landscape during my bus trip

Albania has got the cleanest water I have ever swum in. It also has the most beautiful inland landscape I have ever seen. My bus trip took me along roads I didn’t think roads could go, along mountains. Imagine two mountain ranges, separated by a valley 100 metres wide. And in that valley, a stream and sometimes river would run, with the ground completely covered in farm land. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take great pictures because the bus was moving, and when I realised I should take a picture, we had already passed the best bits. It really was breathtaking.

I think Albania has got massive potential. Not just as a tourist destination however. During communism, religion was banned. Organised religion is one of the biggest set backs of modern society, because it was a form of control imposed by empires 2000 years ago. The traditions, hatred and history constrain us to this day. As an Orthodox Christian, if I was to marry a Catholic Christian, my family would despair. In Albania however, if you are a Muslim, and you find a person you are happy with who is Christian, you have the full blessings of everyone. Whilst spirituality is an important part of the human dimension, organised religion should not be separating us. Despite Albanian’s economic problems, and inexperience in democracy, I think they are an advanced society, whereby all citizens are genuinely equal. In fifty years time, we will be seeing them as a model.
A mosque and Church, recently built as they were all demolished during communist days, standing near each other in perfect harmony

The elections next month are on everyone?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s minds. Whoever wins, people are predicting that it will be a hung parliament. The feeling with people is that the centre-right New Democracy party needs to win, to give the country stop steps forward, rather than backwards, as the communist party is doing. These elections will be the crucial thing to see whether it take 5 or 50 years for Albania to get itself together.

I am currently in Ohrid in (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, the tourist Mecca of the country. It really is beautiful here, and I am still experiencing, so I better get off this computer and find some English speaking locals. And as they would say in Macedonian, “ayde ciao!”.