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Russia

My first experience with a Russian, was on the flight from Dubai to Moscow (connection from Tehran). She was my flight neighbour – a twenty-something singer-musician. She didn?Ǭ¥t say much, although she was taking a swig of her bottle of vodka every five minutes. I presumed she had a serious flight phobia.

Turns out there was no phobia. And that bottle of Vodka was three-quarters finished by the time the plane took off. Apparently, she drinks a bottle a day (I always thought it was an apple a day that kept the doctor away?). And what I thought was a quiet neighbour scared of flying, turned out to be a sarcastic alcoholic who started getting a little too friendly.
Half-way into the flight I decided to put her in her place and end the advances, which made the rest of the flight fairly awkward. But nevertheless, I had just had my first Russian experience: alcoholic, sexual, and incredibly sarcastic. Was this a premonition of the days to come?

A bear. Near the river in St Petersburg

Walking across, I saw this fuzzy bit of hair. I thought to myself “that’s a damn big dog”. I walk to the other side of the wall, and it turns out it was a bear.

I had an awesome time in Russia. I spent about ten days there, however to say Moscow and St Petersburg are Russia, is like saying London and Paris are Europe. Needless to say though, alcohol, sexuality, and every type of Russian stereotype you can think of, did feature prominently on my trip.

Russia and alcohol
The contrast between Iran and Russia with regards to alcohol is as startling as say, Osama being elected as the new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. You can get a bottle of Vodka for practically the same price as a bottle of water. But it is not the cost of alcohol that left me shocked – it was the amount of alcohol Russians drink that shocked me.
An example was on my last day in Moscow, I was on the metro coming from the suburbs with my two buddies from the hostel. On the train, we started talking to some girls next to us – because they looked like they were not a day over 14, and drinking what looked like alcohol (one was also a dead-set ringer for Avril Lavinge). Turns out they were 18, but even so, the legal drinking age is a few years more. It was about 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, and these girls were drinking a 12 per cent alcoholic energy drink. They were also a bit pissed. And no one on the train found this unusual at all.
The streets are filled with people drinking in the middle of the day, like a woman causally having lunch with a beer. It’s not just excessive alcohol, but just a lot of alcohol! Kiosks in Moscow that dot the streets with food and beverages, are also stocked up with alcohol. Alcohol is literally everywhere. Even a seasoned Aussie drinker like me couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at the drinking culture.

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St Petersburg is architectually awesome

Russia and sexuality and beauty
When someone would ask me what my ideal woman looked like, I never knew how to answer that question. In the 30 minute metro ride I had when I first arrived from Moscow airport to the hostel, I saw 28 versions of my ideal woman. Enough said!

I met this dip shit Australian at a nightclub, who been working in the security business for the last eight months. I felt like hitting him because it was such an imbecile, but he did say something that sums it up pretty well (when asked why he likes it so much here): “Because the women are beautiful and the men are ugly”. A little harsh, but so true. Women go out of way to display their femininity – which I suppose is something all European women do, but Russians definitely are a cut above the rest. In boiling hot Iran, all women have to cover themselves completely. In barely five degrees Russia, women are wearing skirts that you see on a beach party. And apparently they even do it in the middle of winter at minus twenty degrees weather.

As for sex: how many times do you go to a nightclub and there are professional strippers on the bar? This one club in St Petersburg, I would be dancing, and then there would be an announcement every hour or so. Everyone would gather around an elevated stage with a pole, and watch the five minute routine – men and women alike watching a strip tease dance that repeatedly left my tongue on the ground. When finished, the disco music would start again, and everyone would resume to dancing as if nothing had just happened.

Women in Russia - freezing, and yet they still wear short skirts

I asked a member of the female species why do they wear such short skirts, in such cold weather. Answer: “Because it looks good”.

Russia and stereotypes
Forget the stereotypes, this is what I experienced: Russians are educated, cultured, and will go out of their way to help a stranger. My shock of this last fact was exacerbated by how I was not expecting people in large cities like Moscow and St Petersburg to be friendly – which are the largest and fourth-largest cities in Europe respectively. A typical example, was when I caught the train to the city centre from the airport. Moscow’s metro is the best in the world – which also means it is bloody complicated, especially for someone still learning the Cyrillic alphabet. I got off the wrong metro station, and asked a man where the hell was I. In his limited English he told me to follow him and walked me to the next station where I was meant to be connecting at – a five minute walk completely out of his way. This is but one example where people went out of their way to help me.

They say that when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. And it?Ǭ¥s not just for experiencing the culture, but for safety reasons as well – you don’t want to stand out as a tourist. But stand out I did. My drunk neighbour on the flight had also made the comment that I looked different. Apparently “American”. Still trying to work that one out.
Fortunately, I didn’t have any problems even though I had foreigner written on my forehead and I did have a bit of fun with it. But the homogeneity of the population is amazing, and people that look different like the people from southern Russia, are constantly pulled up by police on the street for passport and bag checks.

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Can you see it, on my forehead? It says “I am a foreigner”

Actually, a slight tangent: in St Petersburg, a university professor from Cambridge university, tried to pick me up. To cut a long story short, I had coffee with him, whilst he attempted to impress me, and invite me back to his apartment for drinks and to see his jacuzzi. The reason I am mentioning this story, is not because of how disgusted I was that a lonely gay man twice my age tried to pick me up, but rather to vent my anger with him because this is my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.
During our discussion, he complained how the Russian academic staff at the university were all straight, which was a weird thing as everyone back in England in his architecture department is gay. And how it bothered him, how they treated him differently. I completely agreed with him, and how bad it is homophobia is so strong here – ever since I got over my schoolboy homophobia, I have always supported gay rights. But then he said two things that made me angry.
The first thing was how he likes St Petersburg because everyone here is white. He doesn’t like the coloured people he has to mix with in London.
The second thing, was how impressive the architecture is in the city. What makes it so impressive, is that the Tsars had millions of slaves dying to make this grand buildings – something a western European ruler would never be able to get away with. And that is what makes them even more special.
So here I am with one of Europe’s leading academics (apparently), sympathising with his inequality, and yet he goes on in the same breath to say how good it is to be in a city full of white people which was built by generations of rulers who had no regards for human life. I felt like getting up and yelling at this maggot to go shove a communist sickle up his arse.
However gay rights are something Russians are not exactly supportive. I had a few conversations with some girls on several issues, and it is interesting to see how traditional minded they are. Point being, how socially conservative the youth are ( just imagine what the adults are like!).

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This church in Moscow took 44 years to build, and was later knocked down by Stalin. They recently rebuilt it, using modern technology, in just four years. The interior is amazing.

Then again, the gay thing might have something to do with the fact that there are ten million more women than men in Russia! Settle down though boys – some statistics a friend of mine dug up show that the numbers don?Ǭ¥t actually skew until after age 33 – there are actually slightly more men than women before that. Yet the numbers do imply the affects of three of Russia’s biggest problems: AIDS, Booze, and Chechnya.

There were an estimated 860,000 people living with HIV at the end of 2003 in Russia, and this figure looks set to increase. It has the highest HIV epidemic in all of Europe, although numbers do appear to be falling. The affects of such a disease, especially with an aging population though – is bad.
Alcohol is a serious problem. When Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign was launched in 1985, within two years life expectancy for men increased 3.2 years for women and 1.4 for women. Those improvements have since been lost, but it does tell a sad story. Russia, with a population of 143.2 million, has 2.37 million registered alcoholics. The average quantity of pure alcohol per person is 8.7 litres. That’s like everyone in Russia drinking 53 ml of Vodka a day.

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Moscows metro: deep, man.

Chechnya is a topic sensitive to Russians. Especially given the terrorist attacks on ordinary Russians by Chechnya’s militants wanting independence. Vladimir Putin recently said he wishes all Chechnyans are flushed down the toilet “We?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re going to chase terrorists everywhere. If we track them down in a loo, we will rub them out in the loo, too.” This is the head of the government saying this. The fact he can get away with it – and also the reason why he said it – shows how much the war has affected the Russian psyche.
However the wars no doubt have had an impact on population numbers, especially with men who are the ones sent to war. Between 150,000 and 160,000 people have died in the two wars in Chechnya, according to Taus Djabrailov, the head of Chechnya’s interim parliament. The toll includes federal troops, rebel fighters, and civilians who died or went missing during both the first conflict (1994 to 1996) and the second, which began in 1999 and continues today. (Source). And lets not forget Afghanistan, which was Russia’s ‘Vietnam’ in the 1980s.

Mr Putin is also busy putting together the third Russian empire. People don?Ǭ¥t know who it is that controls their country, but as my friend Vera said, one more step backwards and she is out of there. Russia is a country in transformation. A strong man is needed to reorganise a country of its size, seeing as its democratic institutions have grown organically from a sick Soviet Empire (or rather, they have been re-branded as democratic). But a dictator is a dictator. The English-press in Russia seem to buzz with theories on how Putin will hold onto power, as he is legally restricted to two presidential terms. Given the nature of power, it is fairly obvious he will not let go the reigns of the government. However his decision on how he does this, will have huge ramifications on a country struggling to recreate itself.

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The double-headed imperial eagle, and the communist star – symbols of two former Russian empires. Wonder what Vladimir is cooking up for his new empire

Economically, the country is not healthy, reliant on oil and arms sales. Apparently 80 per cent of the country’s wealth flows into Moscow – which really makes me wonder what life must be like in the rest of Russia. One set of figures about wages I heard were as such: the average monthly salary is 9000 rubles. A doctor is payed about 3000 by the State (however his secretary probably gets 5000, because she is privately employed). Nine-thousand rubles is about 415 Australian dollars, 315 US dollars, or 260 Euros.

Those numbers are low, but it doesn?Ǭ¥t shock me that much, because I have been to a lot of poor countries where the wages are very similar. But what shocked me was that these are figures for people in Moscow. And in Moscow, I found the prices to be comparable to Sydney and New York. In Australia, the average monthly salary is $4,300 – ten times more than what I was told as the average salary in Russia/Moscow.

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You throw money over your shoulder for luck, and the babushkas behind you desperately catch the money. There are more billionaires in Moscow than in any other city in the world, and as you can see, plenty of poverty as well

Russia has one of the worlds richest histories, although a very brutal one as well. A visit to European St Petersburg makes you stagger at the cultural richness of the country, and Moscow’s fast paced, hedonistic consumer lifestyle, makes your head spin to think this was once the communist nerve centre of the world (communism? where?!)

If Russia’s leading two cities have transformed that much in 15 years, I am looking forward to see what it will become in another 15.

The long road to Iran via Turkey

Turkey. Was meant to be a transit destination, and this is now my 8th day! Three days in Istanbul, a day of travel to get to Trabzon where I spent two days, another day to get to Dogubayazit via Enzurum, and when I finish this post – a full day getting out of the country (even though l am right near the border – I was been roped into helping a local Kurd). The bus trips have been as fun as an adult circumcision, but despite being totally disengaged as a traveler, it still has been an interesting trip.

I arrived in Istanbul early Saturday morning, groaning that the ticket office I needed wouldn’t open until Monday. The hostel was literally a match box (how they fit the beds is beyond my comprehension) that had not been cleaned since, well, never. But despite this there was a hot but stupid Brazilian girl, and a German dude that I become friends with as we were entertained by the Brazilians stupidity, so that made it more bearable.

?Ѭ?stanbul

Istanbul. Damn big.

The German guy had just spent a year working for an NGO in Bangladesh. Yes he is also asking "why" as well now – He’s turned into an avowed capitalist after seeing what he saw. It turns out both our fathers have had former lifetimes as ladies men, but I think his dad takes the cake. His Romanian father is a musician that travels the world bonking women. My friend is son number 12. No one knows but the father how many sons he truly has. "Are you really son number 12?" I would ask for the fifth time. "You very amused by zis, eh?". God yeah.

I picked the hostel because it is in the heart of modern Istanbul near Taksim square, which was a good idea because it is totally different from Sultanahmet, the tourist area. The street is a pedestrian area, filled with shops and consulates dating back from the Ottoman Empire when these grand buildings where once embassies. Apart from walking up-down Istiklal street like a million times, I also got a taste of Istanbul nightlife with the German. Worst hangover ever.

Fishing in the Golden Horn

Having seen what travels on Istanbul’s waters, I don’t suggest seafood in the city.

Istanbul is grubby, congested, and disorderly. But I love it. I don’t know what it is, but it just stands out as one of the most amazing cities I have ever visited, a class I put alongside New York and London. There was a Turkish law that said that if you could build your house in 24 hours, you could claim the land. This resulted in a mass migration from heartland Anatolia, and today no one really knows how many people live in the city. To say 10 million is an understatement. Try 15-20 million.

Trabzon is a cool city as well, founded by Greeks thousands of years ago – the name is derived from the Greek word for "table", because the city sits on the mountain…like on a table. It has always been a historically important city as it lay on the Silk Road, as well as its impressive positioning protecting it from invaders. Today the focus has shifted from East to North, as it trades with Russia and the caucus region. You only need a glimpse of the port to know it is an important one.

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Along the Black Sea coast of Turkey, a mountain range follows it. This picture is on the far west of Trabzon – no wonder it resisted so many invaders.

Both cities are distinctively European in appearance, and spirit. It was only once I got lost in the suburbs of Trabzon that I saw women covering themselves head to toe and even then it was rare – only a few really old ladies. In Istanbul and in the centre of Trabzon it is very rare to see women cover themselves. People look European as well. It was not uncommon to see blue eyes. Actually I was shocked to see how European Turkish people looked. Coastal Anatolia is as European as they get.

Sumela Monastry

Sumela Monastry, which stands at the foot of a steep cliff, about 45 kms outside of Trabzon. Despite undergoing many changes since its founding, they say it first began during the reign of Theodosius I (AD 375-395). It took an hour to walk up the cliff. Monks are crazy people.

Heading inland, things are a bit different. The head to toe covering of women is a tad bit more common, but again, it mostly seems like the older generation. The head scarf is a lot more common, but it looks more like a fashion statement than a statement of fervent religious belief. The people look a bit more Arab as well, but as I found out last night, the Arab-Turkish look is because of the Kurds. One Kurd I met reckons there are 30-35 million of them, in a country with a population of 70 million. No wonder the Kurdish issue is so sensitive in Turkey.

On the bus from Trabzon to Enzurum, I was confirmed you don’t screw around in Turkey. Going on mountains so high up that there were cloud formations next to us, the bus suddenly made a sound like the bonnet had just been scrapped badly. I never found out what exactly happened apart from seeing some scrapings on the side, but what amused me was what happened after the scraping. First of all, all the men were outside, talking and looking very knowledgeable about what to do. Then, a passenger smacked the bus driver, and they got into a brawl. Then, the traffic police came. And another police car. And then a military van with five guys with big guns, four of which guarded the road. Another police car drove past but he was told to move on because they had enough support. Then, a shitty car with what appeared to be a high-ranking military officer, turned up. He poked around, walked around like he was important, and then had his door opened by one of his soldiers. He gave me a look as he was leaving that resembled like a "respect my authority!". I just gave him the kiss my arse look.

And the bus one and a half hours later left. All that for a traffic report? It reminded me of when I was in Trabzon, walking in the suburbs whereby a good 10-15 police cars one after the other came out of their car lot, presumably to deal with some important crime like a bank robbery or fetching a cat from a tree. Point being: Turkey has a lot of military and paramilitary with nothing to do not far from you – don’t test them! The amount of military bases in Eastern Turkey further proves this.

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Turkey has such a diverse and stunning geography, which bears similarities to all the countries I have seen so far combined.

Last night, tired like all buggery, I arrived in Dogubayazit. Some guy called Gerkum led me to a cheap hotel, and I was then passed on to Martin the hotel attendant. Martin than took me to a restaurant, and the staff there entertained themselves as I burnt my mouth with Kurdish food. Apparently, it’s called Kurdish viagra. I haven’t got a female companion to test it but God am I paying for it today – I don’t think a virus has the chance to exist in my body right now because of how strong the curry was (it was like packed curry with some flavouring).

Uploading my photos and writing this entry, Martin found out I had some basic internet knowledge. Two long hours later, we created a site with pictures. Wasted my day meaning I will get to Iran later rather than earlier, but if he gets at least one new customer I suppose it was worth it. Kurdish people are the friendliest people I have ever come cross as well. Maybe a bit too friendly – the 19 year old owner of this Internet cafe likes to talk and it is taking forever to write this entry.

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A proud nation, even though the issues of secularism and the Kurds, seem to challenge and bring conflicting views of what it means to be "Turkish"

Back in Trabzon, I was chatting with the hotel dude whilst eating breakfast. I don’t know whether it is the international male language, or if guys I meet are repeatedly testing my sexuality – because people always bring up the subject of women with me. He was telling me how Russian women are very beautiful. I said Turkish women were very beautiful as well, but he replied "Yes pretty, but only for marriage, not fun". Trying to make the conversation a little more meaningful I asked if people were religious in Turkey. He said they were, but not like how they were in Iran. "In Iran…make changes….like Christianity…you will see when you go". He then left the room with me trying to understanding what he meant by that. I didn’t have the chance to find out, but whatever his negative view of Iran is, I hope I can prove it wrong.

PS. On the toilet issue debate, the Muslim way is so much cleaner. Having said that though, I have completely redefined the relationship I have with my left hand.

Bulgaria

Having checked the map, I’ve realised that my trip-to-be isn’t really Eastern Europe in as much as it is Central Europe. And the term ex-Eastern Bloc is so passe. So let me start again: Greetings from the ex-commie bastard countries, before they turn into capitalist prick countries! Oh, I am excited!
The doctor ordered I stay in Greece another 10 days to recover, since my last blog posting. She could feel my anger, and did not charge for the session. The next visit, although better, she said I needed another month to fully recover – on top of the previous 25 days I had, locked up in Athens with rare glimpses with the outside world. Fearing for her life, she said it should be okay for me to leave. The next day, I was on a train north.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Orthodox Christian iconography, at the big mother of a church in Sofia. Love them. And so does the Vatican, which sells them – the churches may disagree on doctrine, but they both know what sells well

So what to say about Bulgaria? The women are ridiculously hot (even the store mannequins looked good); the country is ridiculously cheap (and apparently, those two facts are not mutually exclusive, as I explain below). And I have never said the word “ridiculous” so many times, to describe a country.
I spent two days in Bulgaria’s capital – Sofia – and four in a former capital – Veliko Tarnovo. Sofia was pleasant; VT was great but could have been 10 times better if it wasn’t raining. We spent two nights hoping it would clear up, and I had to spend another night there because my bus to my next country broke down on the way. Unfortunately the day I left was also when it started clearing up, but I figure I will explore the country another time.

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Managed to get some pictures on my last day. The castle at Veliko is built on one of the three hills that the city sits on.

I enjoyed Sofia because it was bustling with people, had chic areas to hang out, and I had trouble trying to spend my money – always a good sign! In VT, despite the rain, I had some good company. I had met two British kids – Lydia and James – in Sofia, and said to meet them in VT. Although they left the day before me, they arrived at the same time and found me as I was walking to the hostel in VT, with a taxi driver that had no idea where they wanted to go. ?Ѭ? was wondering why it took them an entire day to get here, and they explained. In Bulgaria, like in Albania, they shake their heads sideways for ‘yes’ and up-down for ‘no’. Put simpler, the opposite to the rest of the world. So when on the bus the previous day, they asked the bus driver if the current stop was VT. He shook his head sideways, to indicate yes. The kids read it as a no. And so they spent the night on the Black Sea resort of Varna, a few hours from where they had originally planned to be.

Although it was raining, Lydia and James – who had met one week earlier but looked like a married couple together (something I think a lot of travelers can relate to when traveling alone) helped pass the rainy days with me. Lydia with her slapstick humour and James with his political incorrectness, wit, and political incorrectness. We found this amazing restaurant and we would eat there all day whilst laughing. On more serious discussions, James and I would reminisce the good old days of the British Empire, and how good the times were with slavery. James and I realised we are also a compatible writing team, as we discovered when writing an entry in the guest-book, and we are currently brainstorming a book we promise to write for the growing travel market. The book is called “Islamic Jihad on a shoe-string” or how to blow shit up on the cheap, for the budget traveler. I think we may have cornered a niche market here.

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The food was unbelievable. And ridiculously cheap: this dish cost about Five Lev or Three Euros. Also, they iron the tables with table-cloths when re-setting. Maybe that is what Sydney restaurants are missing?

Bulgarians look different from the rest of the people that inhabit the Balkan peninsula. Like the Serbs, there is a hint of Slavonic blood in them, but their unique look is obviously more dominated by other tribes. There is obviously some Thracian blood in them, but there is also a Turkic central-Asian look, from the Bulgar tribes that migrated in the 7th century AD. They have this characteristic round look, as in round face – like a teddy bear face. Having said that, there is also the sharp nose, sharp face look. Either way, they look different. And on the highly charged issue of Macedonia, I have to say the Macedonians do look a little different.

Sofia is located near the Republic of Macedonia’s border. It was picked as capital, because of the wishful thinking that one day Bulgaria would be reunited with “Western Bulgaria”, with Sofia as the capital in the middle of the country. Bulgarians claim the neighbouring Macedonians are actually Bulgarians, that speak a dialect of Bulgarian. I personaly find the Macedonians to be a little more Slavic in appearance. Either way, it’s a hotly contested issue. Maybe if the Bulgarians learnt how to move their heads for yes and no like the rest of the world, there wouldn’t be such a communication problem when discussing senstive issues like these? I was very confused when talking about the subject.

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Veliko is bu?Ѭ±lt on these hills. It was a strategic city, as it lay on the Rome-Constantinople road.

Bulgarians are very pro-Russia. In fact, when most of the commie bloc countries in the north where trying to get out of the Warshaw Pact, the Bulgarians voluntarily asked to be a part of the USSR in 1973. Whilst cheap Vodka may have something to do with it, the “we love Mother Russia” view is probably also due to the historic relationship with the Russians, where the Russians liberated the Bulgarians from the Ottoman Empire in 1878.

Russian church St Nikolay

Russian Church, built by the Russian Ambassador in the 1800s. They reckon he thought the Bulgarian Orthodox Churches spooked him, so he needed some Real McCoy Russian spritual protection

Squashed by the Byzantine Empire, supressed by the Ottoman Empire, and ‘liberated’ by the Russians – the Bulgarians are slated for joining the European Union in 2007. People don’t seem to understand why, nor care. The owner of the hostel at Sofia that I stayed at, reckons Bulgarians don’t have a deeply rooted culture of democracy. The concept of being an independent state isn’t a concept they understand. Whilst they are very proud of their culture, they are not so proud about their country. He reckons Bulgaria needs to be ruled by someone, because they don’t know better themselves.

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Sofia city centre.

Turbo folk music seems to be popular, music that has swept the Balkan states. I was told in Serbia, everyone hates it but it seems to be popular in Bulgaria. The girl at the VT hostel hates it as well, saying it is a bit like American R’n’B music with cars, naked girls, and sex. My Serbian friends claim it is nationalistic propaganda music. With short skirts and girls, I think I now understand how propaganda works.

And finally, a funny story. Was taking pictures.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Actually, this picture to be exact

And a young man in a business suit asked me for the time. Then, he gave me his business card. It was too funny to refuse the card.

Medical control!

"non stop"

The card he gave me. Notice “non-stop”, ” medical control” and the generous discount.

Unfortunately, that is all I have to say. Blame the rain. Currently in Turkey and lovin’ it.

Party month

Judging from the amount of e-mails, text messages, and smoke signals I have received in the last month, from the standard “where are you now?” to the more dramatic “are you still alive?” I think now might be a good time to update my blog. Before I continue, this entry has nothing much interesting to read about travel destinations, and it purely is directed at my friends who are getting narky at my quietness.

So what have I been doing in the last month? After Paris I caught the bus down to Barcelona, with my friend from Australia, Max. We were there for a week, and we basically got drunk, slept, and ate kebabs in what seemed like an endless cycle. The cycle was as such: get up at post-noon, go to beach (or watch the cricket), hurry back to the hostel for Happy Hour which started at 6pm (two litres of Heineken for three Euros). Chat up some fellow hostellers, usually girls, and end up at some random clubs with those girls, drinking more beer, bourbon, and shots of, well, alcohol of some sorts. My memory gets hazy at that stage of the night. On alternate nights, we would do a pub crawl, the only difference being we went to five separate establishments in the space of a very short time. The three Euro Happy Hour Drinks and the chatting up of girls still featured prominently. As did the haziness.

I reached my fifth day in Barcelona, and said: “Hey Max, you know we haven’t seen anything of this city yet?” To which Max would reply: “True that, brudda”. It wasn’t until my final day there that I actually learnt how to orientate myself, and took some pictures of the place! So what did I think of Barcelona then? Well, it had a great night life!

Streets in Barcelona

I didn’t really like Barcelona when I first arrived, and neither did my sister who had left with her Contiki tour the day I arrived. If you spend just a day in Barcelona, you probably wouldn’t either, as all you would see are the dirty ghettos, the legless beggers and the shady juveniles with rat tails, eyeing you out. Barcelona is a city you need to feel to appreciate, in which you need time to realise. Its nightlife, relaxed pace of life, and general atmosphere: Put simply, Barcelona is a cool city, and it definitely ranks as one of my favourite places so far.

As my deadline to Greece approached (to meet my friends on the islands), it was time for me to move on. Our wallets and livers couldn’t handle any more, either. My plans with Max changed a bit: I wanted to see some of Rome before I hit Greece, and Max had a bit of thing with one of the girls we met. So Max went west with Dominique for Madrid and beyond for the following month, as I headed east for Rome. Although all roads lead to Rome, I was not arsed going by bus, and these two girls I had met heading the same direction actually found a flight that was cheaper than the ferry (and the bus). However my arrival in Rome wasn’t as smooth as you would expect. Basically, I nearly missed my flight, smashed a glass table at a cafe, and witnessed a gay-sex orgy in a toilet cubicle in Rome. It was the craziest 12 hours of my life. If I wasn’t so doped up on antibiotics, I might have the temperament to tell you the story. But I don’t.

Hilarious day

I spent close to a week in Rome, of which I spent only a few of those days sightseeing, as I had to do some trip planning for my Eastern Europe trip (visas, et cetera). Did all the main sites, and really enjoyed Rome. Rome is like London an imperial city, rather than a cultural city like Paris. Went snap happy with my camera there.

The colloseum at night

From Rome, I caught an overnight train to Brindisi. I made sure my booth lights were off, so that people would walk past, and I could have the booth to myself and the other guy I shared it with. Later, that guy, turned on the lights. Three minutes later, a family consisting of a nagging mother, a grandmother who stretched her feet right out, a hyperactive little girl who kept stepping on my feet as she ran in and out, and another little boy in the carriage whose presence just annoyed me, took over our carriage. Oh, and the little yapping dog, right at my feet. I wanted to squash that little shit. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night.

A friend was in Lecce, about an hour from Brindisi. I went down south with Enza and friends in what is the heal of the boot of Italy, having an awesome few days. My first day, at the beach we experienced an Italian airshow, with helicopter drops and race boats. Absolutely amazing. The next day, we went to this place that has an underwater hot-spring, which Enza and I managed to get a photo of (not easy!).

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I ended up missing my bus. As the next bus left in three hours, it also meant I missed my ferry.

And so, for therapy, I jumped off a cliff.

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We even managed to get Enza to jump off.

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Whilst Emmanuel and I kept trying to find higher and higher cliffs to jump off.

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The next day, I didn’t miss my ferry, and finally reached Athens. Reminiscent of the train journey, I had found myself a nice piece of carpet upstairs from the main lounge area. Rolling out my sleeping bag, with the other 50 people there, we started to sleep. And then, the disco music started – the lounge had a hidden disco floor. And it lasted until one in the morning. All the women on the boat, walked pass, peeking enthusiastically. Eventually, a bunch of 14 year old American girls hit the dance floor, which made me realise that girls learn to dance by imitating Britney Spears and Christina Aguilira, until the develop their own style. I hope they develop their own style, because they suck at imitating. The boys of the group tried to pathetically break dance, but that was at least funny. Not so funny, was this guy metres away from me taking pictures of the girls, and with a dirty paedophile grin on his face.

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My stop in Athens was a quick pit stop, before I was to hit the Greek islands of Mykonos and Ios with some school mates of mine. My partners in crime where Andy Perkes, Matt Butcher, and a friend of theirs that has become a mate of mine now as well: Dave Fraser. After about five days, we did it again in Ios, meeting up with a group of Monte and Riverview friends of Perkes and Butcher. That first night, there was absolutely no accommodation, and the only thing available was a patch of dirt ground, at Far Out camping. There wasn’t even an awning to cover everyone! Lucky for me, my little sisters Contiki tour had another two days here, and so I crashed in her room.

All the girls and some of the guys (we became a group of 12 now) reasoned they would rather go to Santorini, and book a place at Ios, ready for them as there was nothing available on the island. Well, anything acceptable by their standards. We didn’t agree, and stayed behind, and so a group of us six boys, rented out dog kennels (that is what they call them, and that is exactly what they are- human dog kennels). Had an amazing time.
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I left the guys on the 13th, as I had to be at my mum’s villages for the August 15 celebrations. Her village is deep in the middle of the Peloponnese – the highest inhabited village in the Peloponnese, and the fifth highest in Greece – and the August 15 celebrations is a huge church-related festival around Greece. This year was even bigger for my family, because my parents, as well as my brother and his wife and baby daughter, had flown up, to be with me and my little sister, along with all my cousins and aunties. There were 17 of us!
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After that, we went to the Greek island of Zakinthos. I was sick now for a little while. The doctor there abused me for letting it get out of control, whilst in the meantime, nearly everyone on the trip caught my virus, including my baby niece. We didn’t enjoy Zakinthos because it was so windy and busy, but we had a nice time nevertheless. We are now back in Athens, and I am recovering, with everyone slowly getting better as well. Went to another doctor, and was diagnosed with a minor bout of pneumonia, so my sickness is being treated a little more seriosly. I think I could strangle my mother and aunty is their mothering.

So where to next? Well basically, it is entirely dependent on my health. The doctor said I was not to move my arse for 15 days, as well as giving me medication, of which I have experienced every single side effect. I have been planning a trip around Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but now I have to do some replanning. Either way, hopefully the next time you hear from me, it won’t be in Greece!

So as I get back to the world of haemaphrodites (“Middlesex”, by Jeffrey Eugenides – worth reading), hope you are all well, and as soon as the doctor says “go”, I will begin my adventure.

Nagging wife countries

Salut!

I’ve just spent the last two weeks visiting my sisters and traveling through Western Europe – the countries I have desperately wanted to avoid on this trip of mine. I call them the nagging wife countries, because I know that one day, I will be back visiting these countries when I am older, richer, and with a nagging wife. Hence me wanting to spend the least amount of time here.

So what are the nagging wife destinations? I spent a few days in London, visiting my two sisters, and seeing my new baby nephew. I left a few days before the bombs thankfully, and arrived in Amsterdam on the 4th of July. I spent three nights there, followed by a night in Rotterdam. I then moved onto Belgium – two nights in Brugge and one night in Brussels, followed by a night in Luxembourg and four nights in Paris. I leave tonight for Barcelona with my former workmate Max from Sydney, whom I have been hanging out with in Paris these last few nights.

I won’t talk about London because apart from a few typical tourist pictures and a gay pride march I stumbled on (absolutely hilarious) I didn’t do anything in London. The only noteworthy event was how much of a bitch the immigration lady was! Well, I suppose I deserved it. Basically, I arrived in London with 10 pounds in my wallet, no bank statements to prove I had money, no return ticket to Australia, and no outgoing pass to prove I was leaving the UK any time soon. The interrogation was just short of me getting in the nude and having a cavity search! In 20 minutes, the immigration lady learnt more about my sisters, myself and my trip than a girl would find out on the first month of dating! I managed to convince her to let me in the country, but only on a one month visa rather than the usual six months. When she said that, I said good because I didn’t want to spend more than a week in her bloody country. That did not go down well either.

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Amsterdam was quite entertaining. The city was not just flooded with tourists in the every-damn-type-you-can-find, but with American college students, stoned off their face. Watching people thinking out loud, on how to find their way home, should be listed as a tourist attraction. The smell of camel shit was omnipresent, and Amsterdam as an attraction, isn’t anything special. Sure you have the “coffee” houses, the prostitutes in the windows, the live sex shows, the sex museum, and Anne Franks house.

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Oh, and there are a shit load of bikes.
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But once you see all that, that’s about it. Contrast that with Rotterdam, a major city in the south of The Netherlands. The city was bombed during WWII, and so everything had to be rebuilt from scratch. So as you can imagine, the architecture is super modern. Words don’t describe it- just check out the pictures! (But don’t confuse it with Brussels, which also had some funky buildings).

Old harbour

Whilst I was in Serbia, I met this Dutch guy, and he said if I ever come to the Netherlands, to give him a buzz and he would put me up for a night. And that I did! Bas is a top bloke to hang out with, but he also is an important person: he is doing the testing on the back wings of that giant new Airbus plane (A380). So if you ever hear of an A380 falling out of the sky, blame Bas! And blame me for having a big night out with him the night before he did some testing! Bas wrote a nice lttle summary of what I did with him, which you can read here.

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Bas and I have this common interest, or rather obsession, over Serbian women. So naturally, part of our conversations were about women, and how unattractive they are in this part of the world rather than in that other part of the world. What Bas says about The Netherlands is exactly what I say about Australian women. As Bas said, sometimes he can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman on the street! Readers of my blog will notice I constantly talk about the women I see on my travels. Well I make no apologies for that. Blame the cave man in me. But secondly, I find it fascinating to see how the crux of our civilisation – relationships between men and women – are so different in these different cultures and have such a huge affect on society in general.

Bas also reckons the Euro had a large impact on the Dutch ‘no’ to the European constitution. The problem was threefold. First of all, just like in all of Europe, the changing of prices was just rude. For example in Greece, a newspaper cost 100 Drachmas. One Euro was valued at 350 Drachmas. But that newspaper was valued at one euro, or 100 cents. Everyone just did rude maths for simplicity. Secondly, shopkeepers raised their prices just before the introduction of the Euro, which the Dutch are hell annoyed. But even worse, is now that the Finance minister has just confirmed that when the Dutch currency, the Guilder, was replaced by the Euro on Jan 1 2003, the exchange rate probably undervalued the Guilder’s true strength by between five and 10 per cent.

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I left Bas for Brussels, but there was no accomodation. So I caught a one-hour train to Brugge, because they had a room and my little sister reckoned it was cool. I wouldn’t call it cool, but it was nice. As well as another three-million tourists. Brugge is described as a classic medieval city suspended in time. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some pretty churches and rabid dogs on the street, which make me feel like I am back in the 1700s (because we all remember those good all days). But seriously, how did they manage to con three million people?

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I went to one church built by some dude that worked in government, and did a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and came back hoping to recreate the big one in Jerusalem. The whole church was filled with his family ensigna, and tombs to his family and whatever. Now, I love narcissism, and feel so relieved to see some corrupt government official build a church which makes me want to worship him, when in fact he was caught out with a hooker and he was bribed into building a church so that things would be kept mum. But honestly, why do three million people seem to buy this bullshit as so special? Maybe I needed a nagging wife to appreciate it.

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Brussels was cool.

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I was expecting a boring city, but the tourist area and the main part of town was extremely vibrant. The day after I went to Luxembourg, with a German kid who was bored shitless in Brussels. The hostel was booked out, and to cut a long story short, I ended up staying at a house of 17 year old girls having a slumber/camping party. And at the party, I met these guys my age, and I went to a special event techno party, dancing with sexy Luxembourgish girls, and spending way too much money. I crashed the night at one of the guys I partied with, and then came to Paris, to be greeted by Max.

Paris is apparently the third most expensive city in the world (after Tokyo and Oslo). And damn it shows – a bottle of coke at this shitty cafe-restaurant outside our hostel cost 4.50 Euros! At the same time, nothing can be compared to Paris – it is the most amazing city I have ever been to, and you need months to explore the place. You turn the corner, and see this building decorated in stone in the most intricate detail that you wonder how they could have ever achived that. And thats just some random building on the corner. Then check out the one next to it!

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Did all the main tourist sights, and had a big night for for Bastille day. Even bumped into three kids from my school days – David Beamen, Jill Davidson, and Pip Johnson. And separately, met up with Aaron Rathmell. Went to Versailles for a day,and just spent half a day lazing in the gardens which were amazing.

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Paris was described by a girl I met as a very sexual city, and I totally agree with that. Crazy vibe. But I am dying of heat right now, so I will end this post, promising more interesting posts once I start my Eastern Europe trip.

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.