Travel Diary: Getting from Skopje to Pristina

It’s 90 minutes by car, but up to three hours by bus. The Balkans’ definition of bus and our definition were clearly misaligned during this trip. When I think bus, I think of a temperature-controlled bus with WiFi, toilets, and comfortable seats.

This bus did not fit any of this criteria. It was a mini-bus that seats 16, with limited luggage storage, no WiFi, and definitely not any toilets (not that I would use them, anyway).

We shlepped our bags on board and made our way to the back rows, hoping no one would expect us to put our bags in the luggage hold. We found ourselves across the row from an American expat working for the World Bank (called Mark Deux), and a UK train employee named Mike. Too many M’s. Mark, Mike and Mark Deux set the world right talking about finance, startups and international affairs. I attempted to drift in and out of sleep but the roads in the Balkans are not known for their newness or smoothness so sleep became impossible.

A clipboard made its way around the bus where each person has to write down their name and passport/ ID card number. This, in theory, is supposed to make the border crossing much quicker. What actually happens at the border is a Macedonian border official collects the clipboard and takes it back to his little post. Then he comes back and has to collect each passenger’s passport/ ID card and return those to his post. After about ten minutes of hem-hawing, the passports are returned to us. Sometimes we get a stamp; sometimes we are disappointed. The odds are 50/50. Then the exact same process is repeated at the Kosovo border.

The border control is unremarkable, and the bus driver behaves normally by stopping at places that are most assuredly NOT typical bus stops to pick up random people. His homies, I’m guessing. These people pay when they get on, an indiscriminate amount, sometimes 1 euro and sometimes 3 euro. There’s definitely not a system.

We’re about an hour away from Pristina when we pull into a petrol station. I assume it’s to pick up fuel, but then Mark Deux investigates and the Batman driver and his Robin are taking a smoke break! We’re an hour away; honestly, you couldn’t wait? Mark and I run into the “convenience store” and pick up a crisps and chocolate breakfast. Someone runs in and asks us, in very broken English, if we’re with the bus. We say yes and run out to see everyone moving their luggage from our little bus to a large, cushy coach.

What is going on? We grab our bags and head to the coach. Turns out, our bus BROKE DOWN, and this coach has come to rescue us. Stellar. We are waiting in the stairwell of the coach to get onto it and I get frustrated. I snap at the person in front of me to move.

That’s when it becomes abundantly clear that the bus is full. There are no seats. So the 15 or so of us that were on our rinky dink bus are now standing in the aisle of the coach, hovering awkwardly over sitting passengers.  I move my way straight to the front and dig in to my breakfast: a Milke Oreo chocolate bar and tomato pesto crisps.

It’s probably only ten minutes later when people begin disembarking, but it being so awkward for me it felt like 20 hours. Someone moves and I gesture for the person behind me to take a seat, which she refuses. I don’t offer twice so I take the empty seat. One by one, people slowly begin filing out of the coach and the standing room passengers begin finding seats.

The coach enters Pristina and nearly the entire bus empties into the middle of a random intersection. That’s when it occurs to us that there’s a decent chance this coach’s final destination is not Pristina Bus Station. It could be going to Serbia. The coach driver could have had Rakija with his breakfast and forgotten his destination. When we turn away from Pristina city center and toward Mitrovice, my anxiety swells.

Just when I think we’re headed into a different country, the coach veers sharply to the left and off, on the side of the road, is the underwhelming Pristina Bus Station.

Whew. Mark Deux and Train Mike file off of the coach. There’s a running joke that whenever we board the bus to somewhere, it is always raining in our final destination. Pristina is no different. It was raining. A cold, piercing, hair-frizzing rain.

We part ways with Mark Deux and UK Mike, drag our sopping selves and our damp packs into a completely unmarked cab and arrive back to the hostel twenty minutes later for less than $4.

 

24 Hours In: Istanbul!

Our whirlwind of Europe is finally coming to an end – final destination Istanbul, Turkey!

After 22 hours of busses, trains and planes we arrived to Istanbul welcomed by a steep hill and many cobblestones. Note to self: don’t fly into Sabiha Gokcen International Airport in the future.

Connection from Gokcen Airport was achieved through an hour plus ride on a coach (14 Turkish Lira, TL) and two train / tram rides (4TL)…or we could have taken a private transport for ~90TL.

We arrived somewhere near the touristy Taksim Square on a steep hill next to the deepest construction pit I have ever seen. There are buildings under construction everywhere.
Navigating the cobblestones and taxi packed sidewalks, we slowly made our way to Taksim station – tantalizing aromas of sweet, spicy and fragrant combined for an unforgettable combination. This is my first impression of the city, and one I will likely not forget. Melody wanted to sample the wares from every restaurant we passsed. Everywhere we walked we have received a cascade of shouts offering taksi rides or a sampling of foods and drinks. For the easily overwhelmed, this is not the place to visit.

IMG_4059

The metro system in Istanbul is, by and large, efficient and effective. There are your standard metro ‘subway’ type cars, street trams, and even ferries…all of which you can take a ride on for 4 TL. For this purchase price, you receive a little plastic coin about the size of a nickel. There is an option to purchase a metro card, but our pleasure for walking meant we did not go this route.

With our little coins we took a short connector ride underground and then a slightly longer ride on an overground street-car, reaching our hostel in good spirits.

Even at 11pm, there were many shops open and crowds of others milling about. In the short walk we were hailed no fewer than 20 times for dining – did I mention you get shouted at?

IMG_4040

December 7, 2015

 

 

Travel Diary: Prettiest Airplane Ride from Kosovo to Slovenia

We don’t mean the airplane and we’re definitely not talking about the flight crew. What was most breathtaking is everything we saw outside of that tiny prison window as we flew from Pristina, Kosovo to Ljubljana, Slovenia.

We’re flying on this tiny Adria plane, which might as well have been a prop plane considering the size of it – two seats on each side, and all of the luggage had to go into the hold. No charge, naturally, and no issues with the plane, boarding or passport control.

IMG_3712

It’s an hour flight, and that’s reassuring despite the winter turbulence. We closed the window blinds after takeoff because the sun was coming in full force into our tired faces. What I saw below when I finally opened the window covering took me totally by surprise. Delicious snow-capped scenery, exactly like the candies. And I became like a kid in a candy store. Little did I know the Slovenian mountains rival the Alps in beauty, majesty and pure wow factor.

IMG_3722

Adore that black and white contrast. Wow. The snow-caps were just too much beauty, and I felt tears in my eyes from sheer joy. Combined with the 3:30pm sunset, the colors of the sky and the rugged mountain peaks were a fantastic treat that only winter affords.

I wanted to turn around to the rest of the plane and say, Look out your window!  You don’t know what you’re missing!

IMG_3725

We got about 10 minutes of this before we finally made our descent, and a decision to return to Slovenia before we ever touched down in Ljubljana.

IMG_3730

November 30, 2015

24 Hours In: Prishtina, Kosovo

I lied. We’ve been in Kosovo for three days, but today was the first day we actually went out and explored anything of Prishtina, the capital. We’ve been too busy at the hostel chatting up the guests.

There’s a really good energy about Prishtina, and despite it being a very small capital with a limited number of things to do, it’s quite amazing to be in a place that has been through a hellacious amount of conflict.

Initial observations about Prishtina:

  1. Euro is the currency and cash is king. If you’re staying for 3 days or less, 50 euro should cover your expenses. Yes. This is probably Europe’s cheapest capital city on the euro.
  2. Qepabs (Kebabs) are very popular here and you can get a very hearty plate of meat, salad and the largest bread I’ve ever seen in my life for 3-4 euro.
  3. The 2 liter beers are back! We first saw them in Bulgaria and couldn’t believe our eyes. A 2L of Lasko, the Balkan beer, will cost about 2.75 euro. Drink to your liver’s content.
  4. Tipping is not required. No one expects it. If you need to get rid of your euro change, then tip. You’ll make someone very happy.
  5. The Newborn monument and the Bill Clinton statue are about a 5 minute walking distance apart. In our opinion, the statue looks nothing like him but it’s super fun to chill with Monica’s former flame.
  6. People speak Albanian and English. Mostly Albanian. People love to say that their English is very poor, then go on carrying a full conversation with you.
  7. Good, velvety smooth gelato costs 1 euro for two scoops. Take that, Italy.
  8. Limited number of pedestrian walkways so your best bet to cross a street is to just saunter into the street and rely on the vehicles stopping and waiting for you. I’m still adjusting to this. Mark’s a natural at stopping traffic.
  9. No underground or metro system to speak of. I suppose that’s still in the works.

And the big one…

Getting to other cities! Yes, Prishtina is not a place where you can lose yourself for an entire month (or is it?), so you’re going to want to head to a different place eventually. This is where the internet basically sucks, because anything I can find in English has information that is totally wrong. So, transportation facts:

Traveling Belgrade to Prishtina:

YES: Buses do travel from Belgrade to Prishtina. There are two in the afternoon – one at 12:00 and the other at 4:30pm. If you buy them in Serbia it’s about $20 for two people. Cash only. There are two places at the Belgrade Bus Station to buy tickets. Look for the bus in the number 10 spot.

The trip: About six hours on a bus without WiFi or charging ports. Two stops are made; one in Serbia and one in Kosovo. If you are not an EU citizen, you will have to give your passport up twice at the border; once at the Serbian border, and again at the Kosovo border. We did not get stamps in our books, either.

Traveling Prishtina to Skopje:

This is hearsay as we haven’t done it yet, but the trip is about 2 hours one-way and costs 4 euro. There is both a train and a bus; the train is faster and cheaper but there is only one a day. It leaves at 7:00am and there’s a return train that comes back to Prishtina at 4:00pm. Once we do this trip, as we have to (it’s the closest city with H&M), we’ll update this with absolutes.

Traveling Prishtina to Prizren:

90 minutes away for 2 euro. A prize in Kosovo, really. Prizren is where many Peace Corps members are teaching English for a couple of years, and it’s also Kosovo’s second largest city with many historic artifacts. Definitely worth a day trip, and one we will be taking very soon.

Traveling Prishtina to Tirana:

Mixed reviews on Tirana; some people love it, other people say it’s a “shit hole.” We won’t know until we see it for ourselves. What we do know is that it’s about 5 hours away, so it’d have to be for a weekend, at minimum.

Have questions for this small yet vibrant country? Drop us a line!

Everyone loves a newborn, and we are very excited to spend a month here in Europe’s newest capital.

newborn

Cheers!

Mission Statement – Why We Travel

Starting in 2013, we began our journey by driving around the United States of America with the only intention being to gather pictures of ourselves next to each state welcome sign. That trip turned into something much more – it sparked the realization that as large as the United States seemed to be, we were missing out on something by staying within the bounds of our home country – a global perspective.

cropped-cropped-2013-08-31-16-09-55-1.jpg

There are 24,642,757 square miles of habitable space in the world and 7.2 billion people living within 196 countries. With all of these people within all of these countries it doesn’t seem fair to be speed travelers spending two days in capital cities to make determinations about the world. Such quick stays are unlikely to provide much perspective on the way life is lived.

Scoping out this guy's wagon. We kind of like it.
Scoping out this guy’s wagon. We kind of like it.

We want to experience difficulty communicating, difficulty getting around, and completely surrender of the congested, exhaust filled wide highways that belt the United States.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, we have traded in a life of huge highways for two lane roads that

In Costa Rica we drove on roads with potholes so large they could break axles.

Bulgarian posters in memory of those passed.
Bulgarian posters in memory of those passed.

In Bulgaria we have stayed in villages with less than 500 people and even fewer resources. Where the best internet we could update our blog from was a half lit connection from an iPhone nestled on the top of the roof, traded American standards of plumbing for long drop toilets and experienced what it meant to reuse and repurpose everything you buy and everything you produce.

We wanted the edge – where you’re wondering why you would ever sign up for a cross country bus with no toilets.

We have been robbed of sleep, found like-minded travelers, and met people living on less money than we made in a week in The United States, yet were a great deal happier and more giving.

While our travels have been filled with challenges and difficulties, we have also received some of the warmest welcomes from people in countries that notoriously ‘despise’ Americans. We have experienced first hand how schools in Finland are operated. We have learned of historic figures that have made pretty dramatic changes within countries that we would never have read about in our history books. We have seen landscapes that make you say, “Wow”.

It’s true, we have also participated in some of the touristy bits of travel, but that is just another part of the experience.

If anything, our appetite for travel has grown during the last 2 1/2 years. We have learned as much (if not more) about ourselves as we have about the world. Our desire to see the world has continued on an exponential growth curve as we have more experiences – ultimately filling us with a greater number and complexity of questions.

While we are not always sure where our experiences and journeys will take us, we will continue to eagerly pursue them.

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves. We travel, next, to find ourselves.

Travel Diary: The Adventures of Mailing a Postcard in Dublin

This short story is proof that mundane tasks can turn into an adventure with the proper person. Mailing a postcard is not as easy as it sounds. Dublin is the only place where we found a sign that said post, much like the one below, that directed us into a supermarket.

Courtesy of Breaking News, Ireland. Ever so small and kind of easy to miss.
Courtesy of Breaking News, Ireland. Ever so small and kind of easy to miss.

We pass a sign that looks like this and peer in. This is a supermarket; that can’t be right. So we’re walking around South Dublin looking for a post office. A real post office, one that would be green with ample harps and lots of other Irish things. We keep seeing oval green mail drops in the street anxious to receive our mail, but as our postcards do not yet have stamps affixed to them, we can not send them on their merry overseas journey.

Though the post office signs are small, the mail drops are really hard to miss. Daily collection varies from 4:00 to 5:30pm.
Though the post office signs are small, the mail drops are really hard to miss. Daily collection varies from 4:00 to 5:30pm.

After about twenty minutes, we turn around and search again for this tiny sign and go into the supermarket. Everything about this feels odd. We’re in the Donnybrook market, and I see what looks like the beginnings of the warehouse. There are people milling about, so I follow the path all the way to the back of the store. There are those long clear plastic flaps right in front of me, and to the right, I see a two-person queue (that’s a line for my American audiences). Right in this tiny L-shaped, dimly lit area is a post office. There’s two tellers behind bulletproof glass. I go up and ask them for five international stamps, please, which they have to print. She comes back and tells us it’s six euros.

Not a problem, a bargain I think, for such a long journey, and Mark swipes our credit card, which promptly gets declined. The employee sees the error and tells us, debit or cash only. At this point, Mark uses the debit card, and that also gets declined. At this point we didn’t have any cash – so I start to worry. The employee clarifies: “Irish bank cards or cash only.”

Weeeelll, that kind of changes things a bit! We ask where the nearest ATM is, across the street, and walk over only to find out it’s Out of Order. The next ATM is a good ten minutes away, and we have twelve minutes to get our postcards in the mail for the 5:30pm pickup. What a maddening deadline. The next twelve minutes is us running to the ATM, waiting eons to withdraw cash, running back to the post office disguised as a supermarket, waiting in a now very-long queue to pick up our postage stamps that we quickly affix to the postcards and bid them adieu as we drop them promptly at 5:29pm.

Mission. Totally. Accomplished.

The Evolution of Our Travel – So far.

As we wait at Varna Airport* in Bulgaria to board a flight toward Istanbul, Turkey for a connection, I cannot help but think about just how much our travel plan has changed since we began planning.

What was originally to be a 48 day, non-stop movement blast of every country in Europe has become something much more satisfying.

We are currently 80 days in, with a scheduled 68 more on the calendar. Wow.

We may not have visited every country yet – in fact we have only been to 16 – but the things we have experienced more than make up for that.

A quick overview of where we have been and what we have done so far:

July 8 – 15: London, England – Crown Jewels, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, British Museum, Jewish Museum (Melody), National Gallery (Melody), Imperial War Museum, Beefeater Distillery, London Overground / Underground, Tube Strike, Long walks to our AirBnB (learned from this mistake), fined 20 GBP for not buying proper ticket on tube.

July 15 – 21: Oslo, Norway – Overpriced pub night first night, Pier 41, Historic Oslo, Drove up to Lillehammer, Port of Oslo, Took bad pictures of Opernhaus, had most expensive quesadilla of our lives (post about that here), overall felt very financially abused, Experienced what it is like to have a dog that has an indefinite amount of energy,

July 21 – 28: Glasgow, Scotland – Took bus from Edinburgh to Glasgow and picked up rental car, learned that speed is in MPH, not KPH, went to Glengoyne Distillery, drove to highlands (Ft. William & Glencoe), hiked up to waterfall, stepped in marsh land up to our knees by same waterfall, saw Glasgow and had a great burger, went to Edinburgh and were a little underwhelmed, visited Museum on the Mound (free), Glen Nevis Park, Contributed to Yarn Project at Renfield St. Stephens Church.

July 28 – August 6: Dublin, Ireland and Northern Ireland – Temple Bar, Trinity College, Giants Causeway, Watched an aging dog (Lucky) with medical problems, spent a couple days at vet with Lucky due to said problems and learned that vet care is quite awesome in the middle of the night, Hiked in Wicklow Mountains,

August 6 – 7: Brussels, Belgium -Delirium Bar

August 7 – 11: Paris, France – Louvre, Eiffel Tower (day and night), Champ de Mars, Luxemborg Park, Notre Dame Cathedral, Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre, Had to walk home at 1:30 AM 10km because metro closed earlier than we thought.

August 11 – 14: Prague, Czech Republic – Walking tour of Prague, Astronomical Clock, Charles Bridge, Gastronomy Museum, Old Jewish Quarter, Jewish Cemetery, Old Town Square, beers along the river, Old New Synagogue, beers in the street, Black Angel Bar ( great craft cocktails in a speakeasy environment), Franz Kafka statue, St Cyril & Methodius / Heydrich Terror Memorial

August 14 – 29: Helsinki/Artjarvi/Oramatilla, Finland – Taught at Finnish School (Melody), carved 3 walking sticks, picked a LOT of cherries, picked black and red currants, picked gooseberries (had no idea these were a thing before), attempted a bike ride, aborted bike ride, laid foundation and placed bricks for BBQ relocation, raised elevation of ground around greenhouse, trimmed apple and cherry trees for days, resurfaced a table, used an infrared heater for table, drank lots of homemade cider / beer, learned to make mead, helped make mead, learned some Finnish, experienced a Finnish birthday party, taught modded Minecraft to someone in another language, SAUNA!!!, adapted our favorite recipe for use in Finland, set the world right during late night drinking sessions.

August 29 – 30: Copenhagen, Denmark – Nuhavn, attempted walking tour twice, failed to locate walking tour twice,

August 30 – September 1: Berlin, Germany – East Side Gallery, Humboldt University, Walking tour of Berlin, Jewish Holocaust Memorial, Hitler’s Bunker, Brandenburg Gate, visited Hotel where Michael Jackson hung baby out of window, Checkpoint Charlie, straddled former Berlin Wall. Volkswagen showroom.

September 2 – 6: Rome and Vatican City, Italy – Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Sistine Chapel, Church of St. Augustine, Vatican Museum, Villa Doria Pamphilli,

September 6-9: Naples, Italy – Beautiful decorations in subway stop, couldn’t find a cab to save ourselves, Pompeii, driving in Naples (YIKES!), drove along the Amalfi Coast (didn’t quite reach Amalfi), experienced fairly rude service overall at every restaurant we went to (save one).

September 9-10: Sorrento, Italy – Due to weather unable to do our boat tour in the morning, got ripped off by cabbie for ride to pick up rental car, ate a burger for lunch and skipped dinner, had our first bad AirBnB Experience, drove along the Amalfi Coast (still didn’t quite reach it), fell asleep hot, unconnected (no wifi) and hungry.

September 10-11: Rome, Italy – took lovely train ride back to Rome from Naples, had some confusion reaching our hotel (there are two Best Westerns by the Fiumicino Airport), walked along beach, learned that restaurants literally do not open until 8pm by the beach, had best dinner of our Italian trip.

September 11 – 25: Sofia/Popovo/Varna, Bulgaria -Stayed at our first Hostel of the trip in Sofia (excellent experience), took bus to Popovo (not a great experience), met Joe and Julie our hosts and had a nice dinner, expanded and repaired a stone path that was damaged by the pigs, learned to cob, cobbed a part of a wall, milked a goat (Melody), harvested Maize, shucked Maize, de-kerneled Maize using hand crank machinery (excellent!), used long-drop toilet (wha?!), had traditional Bulgarian dinner (very fun and awkward as a foreigner), found old communist radio, learned about old communist radios, walked across train tracks to get to our train, visited Bulgarian version of Walmart (hint: not as big, nor as well stocked as you would think), laid garden beds, held chickens, pet sheep (Melody), straightened out a pig’s tail, trained the dogs to sit, adapted our favorite recipe for Bulgarian food availability, saw the Milky Way – every night, fought to get internet for Melody’s school / students, bought clothes at a ‘second-hand’ store, learned how to make bread (Melody), made bread (Melody), painted with Lime / coffee mixture, went to Bucharest, Romania to pick up a friend, showered using a wood-burning water heater, bathed in the kitchen sink, picked walnuts / hazelnuts, took train to Varna (much better public transportation option), stayed at second hostel of trip (excellent people, excellent city), went to Bulgarian ‘night club’, set feet in the Black Sea, ate very cheaply, lamented how expensive The United States really is, went to Primorski Park, drank really really cheap beer, discovered that beer is sold in 2L bottles for the equivalent of $1.39.

September 25: Istanbul, Turkey – learned that you don’t need a visa to connect in Istanbul, learned that Istanbul airport is REALLY busy, learned Turkish Airlines is a very nice airline to fly (new favorite), slept at airport waiting for our connection, vowed to return to actually see Istanbul.

September 25 – 26: Toulouse, France – met our first friendly French person.

September 26 – Present: Seix, France – Met Peta and Keith, our new HelpX Hosts, assessed project and learned it would be much more difficult than originally anticipated, removed existing retaining wall for garden bed, sorted stones, dug foundation for new retaining wall for garden bed, sorted stones, poured foundations, sorted stones, laid part of wall, sorted stones, chipped stones, smashed stones, stones, sorted stones, laid more wall, weeded a garden bed while Peta and Keith sorted stones, laid remainder of retaining wall (phew!), dug foundations for new steps to be laid next to retaining wall, poured concrete and laid steps, had concrete that was laid around pavers ruined by HUGE hailstorm, climbed Mount Mirabat, experienced first rate doctors help with medication for less than $30 (Melody) after hike up Mirabat, sterilized a lot of pots (Melody), went to downtown Seix, visited Foix (didn’t make it to the castle sadly), observed pigeons instead of visiting castle, tended many garden beds (Melody), washed A LOT of dishes, first indoor clothes dryer of trip, celebrated birthday with wonderfully made cake made by Peta, had delicious meals prepared each lunch and dinner,

Overall, we have experienced many times of magnitude more than what we thought we would. We have learned, sweat, bled, laughed, smiled and drank ourselves around Europe in a fashion that we feel grateful and satisfied about.

Don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

*Started post on Sept 25, posted on Oct 10.