Pristina

Wednesday 22 April

Attempting to travel from Skopje to Belgrade via Pristina isn’t a good idea.  This is a region on tenterhooks, as the Serbian government still doesn’t properly recognise Kosovo as a legitimate country.  Locals can come and go freely, but those sporting a different passport will most likely have difficulty crossing from Kosovo into Serbia and vice versa.  My original plan to pass through Pristina on my way back to Belgrade then is dead in the water, and I opt for a day trip from Macedonia instead.  It proves to be a sensible – albeit forced – decision.

Pristina side streets

Pristina side streets

Predominantly populated with Albanians, Kosovo has had it’s fair share of troubles.  Towards the end of the Yugoslav wars, Albanian rebels began kicking up a storm against the ruling authorities, attacking Serbian law enforcement in Kosovo.  It was only a matter of time before it got messy, and NATO stuck its nose in (rightly or wrongly – again), which resulted in numerous air strikes, including the bombing of Belgrade in 1999.  A multitude of war crimes later perpetrated by all sides, and as far as I can glean, it’s all been tit-for-tat, he said/she said, playground tactics and chucking toys out of prams.  “The leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones.”

Sticking an oar in.  Bill Clinton.  They adore him here.

Sticking an oar in. Bill Clinton. They adore him here.

Kosovo eventually declared itself independent from Serbia in 2008, but continues to garner mixed recognition from the international community.  The UK recognises it, so I guess I do, and it’s nice to get a new flag sticker on my guitar.  But we should dream of a world without borders.

Well I'm happy somebody does

Well I’m happy somebody does

It is safe to say therefore, that Pristina is a city in need of help.  The mantle of capital thrust upon it, you get the sense that it doesn’t want the burden.  Its hospitality might just be its only shining light, as even if the sun was blazing with glorious blue skies, the cities aesthetic would still leave a lot to be desired.  I often balk at waxing negative about anywhere, (apart from London – I take great delight in lambasting that hole), but this collection of ramshackle high-rises, cranes and concrete is bleak.  It needs a lot of love, and a lot of money pumping in if it’s to even come close to competing with its neighbours for vital tourist dollars.

The main high street.  In need of sun and trees.

The main high street. In need of sun and trees.

You only have to visit the Pristina TripAdvisor page to paint a dreary picture of its attractions or lack thereof; and with extraordinary levels of anti-gay slogans and graffiti daubing the desolation, you realise that this place really does have a long way to go.  Is it possible to polish a turd?  With an uneasy peace and tensions remaining high, Kosovo might never get a chance to find out.

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Skopje

Tuesday 21 April

“We’re buying chocolate when we can’t afford bread”, or words to that effect, apparently delivered by the Macedonian government’s opposition leader in response to the state of the country today.  He’s got a point.  As I cross a new border in for what feels like forever, I’m struck by how much of the countryside could do with some shake n’ vac.  Now I don’t like to tarnish the whole nation with the same brush, but by and large the overall impression I get as the bus swings through scattered villages, is that it’s one giant rubbish dump.  Stark contrast to the capital Skopje.  Chocolate where bread is needed.

Brand spanking new.  The Warrior on a Horse.  Actually Alexander the great, but they're not allowed to call him that over a long running dispute over ownership with the Greeks.

Brand spanking new. The Warrior on a Horse. Actually Alexander the great, but they’re not allowed to call him that over a long running dispute over ownership with the Greeks.

It’s here that the old meets the new, and the strange meets the stranger.  As you wander from one part of the town to the next, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all the monuments are scrupulously clean.  They’ve done a damn fine job in sandblasting the ancient history here!  Ahhhh but you are deceived!  Because literally everything has been thrown up in the past few years.  Your eyes turn to the crane littered skyline.  The endless building site barriers festooned with One Republic world tour posters.  The mountains of concrete, bricks and glass.  For this side of the river at least, Skopje is having one hell of a face lift.

The current reality.  The building site main square.

The current reality. The building site main square.

The centre was decimated by a massive earthquake in 1963 or thereabouts.  The recent government has therefore taken it upon themselves to restore the city to its former glory, and are clearly getting the money from somewhere.  One could ask Mother Teresa (Macedonia’s most famous daughter) exactly the same thing; and what was it all spent on?  The cogs turn on in the corridors of power and corruption.

Strange sculptures chat over building site boardings

Strange sculptures chat over building site boardings

Regardless they’re doing a grand job.  On the South bank of the river Vardar, Skopje is turning into a modern playground, and you have to say it’s got potential.  It’s a hotch potch of ideas (and some designer somewhere has been hammering the acid), but by and large it works.  It’s uniquely charming with strange statues and random sculptures, brand new public squares, and three bizarre half galleon ships built into the river presumably for restaurants and night life.  One can see Skopje attempting to prise the stag and hen crowd from the likes of the big hitters of Krakow, Riga, Bucharest and Prague.

One of the unfinished galleons.  Presumably for night life when complete.  I asked hostel staff why there were building them and he replied; "because Skopje".

One of the unfinished galleons. Presumably for night life when complete. I asked hostel staff why there were building them and he replied; “because Skopje”.

The North bank, over the old stone bridge, is decidedly different.  Here the famous Old Bazaar is located, a beautiful labyrinth of Turkish influence, with shades of Sarajevo, and throwbacks to the Ottoman Empire.  And they do the best damn ćevapčići you’re likely to taste in the Balkans.  Fort Kale sits dominating the proceedings from its vantage point on the hill, and has quite the view from the top.  This looks like it’s getting its own makeover, and it takes a few moments for the penny to drop that this isn’t that old at all.  It appears to be being rebuilt from the ground up.  They don’t miss a trick these Macedonians!  Interestingly enough, “Kale” is an old Turkish word for “Fort”; so it tickled me to know its name must  literally be “Fort Fort”.  I had a chuckle to myself.  Traveling solo has its drawbacks when there’s nobody around to exalt such rapier wit.

Fort Fort

Fort Fort

With the beautiful outdoor playgrounds of mount Vodno and Matka gorge a stones throw away, and you’ve got a vibrant city with a bright future.  Macedonians are a friendly bunch too, as a fellow traveler and I experienced on a night out.  They treat April 1st as a similar holiday to Halloween, so the town was adorned with colourful costumes and masks, and the kilt has now been aired in 40 countries.  I wonder how they’ll take it in central Asia?

Matka gorge

Matka gorge

You might wander around with a big question mark over your head for much of your stay, but I defy anyone not to smile in this city.  As puzzled as to why you might find yourself with the thought, there’s a definite moment where you’ll stop and quite reasonably say to yourself; “I like it here.”  In both glorious sunshine and miserable rain, it’s one of the most interesting places I’ve visited; just so long as they don’t overdo the chocolate.

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Travel thievery

Wednesday 08 April

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Several eventful weekends have been and gone, including a flying visit from my friend Mike, which did not disappoint.  Wildman Wallace never fails to cause a stir, which unfortunately culminated in his wallet being stolen by some pock faced drug dealing dwarf.  Unfortunately the thievery didn’t stop there, and just a few short days later some utter bastard has helped themselves to my main ruck sack.  That’s my 70 litre snail shell that I use to contain all my worldly belongings!  Who does that?!

Lucky for me I’m a messy traveler, and all my stuff has been strewn across the dormitory floor like it was my own home.  This can get particularly embarrassing when guests check in to be met with a mountain of stained underwear while I’m nonchalantly sleeping off seven tequilas.  Anyway, some cowardly cunt (for there is no better word to describe anyone who steals something that doesn’t belong to them) has only managed to take a camera tripod that doesn’t work properly, several socks with holes in them, a predominantly out of date first aid kit with the zip broken, and a three season old Liverpool FC shirt with hot-rock burns through it.  He would also have discovered a pair of expensive women’s panties (worn – but I assure you not by me), that I had promised to return to a young lady if I ever managed to make it to Australia.  Boy he was in for a surprise.

Afterwards however, I’d also remembered I’d stashed 5 unopened tins of V05 Matt Clay hair stuff in a side pocket (you can’t get product that good outside the UK so I bought in bulk and received a care package from my sister), and my back-up pair of prescription glasses.  So added to the pair stolen off my face on a beach in Nicaragua and the pair smashed to pieces when I got my nose broken in Montenegro, that makes three pairs of very expensive visual aids down the pan.  Raging isn’t the word.

But truth be told, it is the pack itself I miss the most.  My friend Tan and uber staff member at Hostel Mostel very kindly gave me hers in replacement.  Yet although this is much better and more compact than my behemoth, I still feel like I’ve lost a friend.  It was with me through 51 countries, over 8 years, and it was still going strong.  It was my home.  I was going to hang it on a wall someday somewhere, and never use it again.  It had a Scottish flag stitched to the back (to convince I wasn’t an American in Central Asia and the Middle East) and a token of a lasting bond with friends I’d made at a summer camp in the States.  I feel violated.  Rest in peace buddy, wherever you are.

I now have had so much stuff stolen from me over the past four years of travel, that the thought crossed my mind to start doing it myself; but I could never deal with the guilt.  Below is an updated summary of items people have lifted from my possession.

  • Nikon D3100 DSLR.
  • Sony Cybershot.
  • 2 x Panasonic Lumix compacts.
  • 2 x Hair Straighteners (yes -get over it).
  • 5 T-shirts.
  • 100 GBP worth of currency.  Including that Scottish ten pound note given to me in Moldova on which a young lady had written: “I hope you find your way back home one day”.
  • Two full bottles of Issy Miyake fragrance.
  • Wallet, driving licence, credit/debit cards and the facebook details of traveling friends I will now never see or hear from again.
  • Three pairs of prescription glasses.
  • My Sgian Dubh knife.
  • Bruxism custom made dental night guard.  Really…?!
  • Back pack, containing the items listed in the paragraph above.
  • Currency exchange card robbed by a black prostitute in Chicago.  (I didn’t use her “services” I hasten to add).
  • 2.50 Euro taken at knife point.  It was all I had left
  • Numerous beautiful girls stolen by Australian surfer “dudes”
  • My heart.
  • Pride.
  • Sanity.

Not counting a significant number of times I’ve felt hookers’ hands about my person as I’m trying to walk home from a night out.

I don’t understand how people can live with themselves.  Just once, somewhere, someday, I want to catch someone at it.  It doesn’t even need to be my gear.  I just want to walk in and find some low-life smeg-head with their hands in somebody else’s kit.  I don’t care how big he is, I will tear him a new arsehole.  I won’t stop.  I’d grab the closest thing to hand and wrap it round his head.  Someone would have to pull me off him.  Four years worth of travel theft would come raining down on his face.  Just once.  Please, for the love of god make it so.

Anyway dear readers, I hate to turn into one of those wishy-washy bullshit travel blogs with “helpful” advice like “16 and a half ways to stay safe on your holiday”, or “how to not get robbed abroad – 34 captain obvious statements”; but the moral of the story is lock up your stuff.  Even though I did/do.  Oh and don’t get drunk.  Somehow I think that might be attributed to ninety per cent of it.

 

 

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Women eh? Rolls eyes*

Monday 06 April

Ok so here we go with backdating stuff that’s happened in the past month, this entry taking place on the 8th of March.

I’ve been having a jolly old time in Sofia as per norm, rattling around on the bar crawl, sleeping until four, and generally making a nuisance of myself.  A small hostel family had grown – the first of the season – and time was passed pleasantly by all supping the delights of vodka, playing kings cup drinking games, and trying to shag anything that moved.

So the story goes I was attempting to be Mr Charm, while several other male guests were going rouge.  Lone wolf.  Relentless in their pursuit of the vagina.  Flitting from one knock back to the next until their appetites are satisfied.  Then dragging women back to their caves by the hair.

So in keeping with the mantra of Looking for Stu’s brutal honesty; of course I’m playing the game, I’m just doing it with a little more subtlety.  I hesitate to divulge my M.O, but after a night of clandestine field-play, I was left empty-handed.  I made a move for a particular girl and I’ve got fresh air.  Hey-ho, thems the breaks, shit happens.

Coming to, bleary-eyed and still somewhat significantly concupiscent the following morning doesn’t do a guy any favours.  He can go rabid.  DEFCON 5.  Casanova on speed.  A black-belt Lothario.  And the devil does indeed make work for idle thumbs, so naturally I fired off a couple of texts to two girls containing something about the delightfully irresistible offer of a spoon.  Not the cutlery kind.  But alas, fortune took a turn for the worse, as these two girls happened to be sitting next to each other at the time.

“Oh!  I’ve got a text from Stuart!”  Said one.

“You’ve got one?  So have I…”  Replied the other.

I could possibly imagine the conversation beginning, shortly followed by a brutal lambasting of the actions of myself and all mankind.  One young lady in particular took it upon herself to confront my atrocious, outlandish behavior, and excoriated me in my bed.  Unfortunately this was about as far from sexual as Howard the Duck was a good film.

Now don’t get me wrong dear readers; I’m no angel.  I’m a 35 year old, single guy, traveling the world.  I don’t really want a relationship right now, and I certainly never want to get married.  But I copped an earful for being so duplicitous about it.

“At least we know all the other guys are openly sleazy bastards, you’re just really sneaky about it.”

It could have been worse.  She admitted to considering having the two of them turn up at my room at the same time.  How I would have got out of that one I don’t know.

I’d been found out.  Caught. Reprehensible.  It’s a fair cop guv, and you’ve got to hold your hands up.  But was it really that bad?  We’re all at it!  I’m no different to most guys (even though a tactic is I claim to be), it’s just we all go about the chase in our different ways.  Am I in the wrong?  It’s a serious question.  Most women would be appalled at the language and filth that pours freely from the mouths of men when the fairer sex isn’t around.  This I actually detest, considering it extremely low-brow, cringing at such talk that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  And yet it was me who took the full force of retribution, all for hedging my bets!  For having eggs in other baskets!  How many guys are you all speaking to at once ladies?!  I’d be very naive to think it was just one!  I happened to be on a date a short time ago with the closest thing to Aphrodite I’d seen in many a moon, and she spent a large portion of the evening tapping away on her fucking iphone.  Talking to her dad was she?!

Ahem.  Apologies.  I got carried away.  Where was I?  Ahhh yes, the eternal battle of the sexes.  The fact that this little episode coincided with International Women’s Day and the irony wasn’t lost on me.  I was dealt some swift, merciless justice.

Incidentally why we need a specific day for women is beyond me.  Every day should be women’s day.  Maybe that’s just me trying to score some brownie points in the wake of my spectacular failure in invoking Don Juan.  Oh well.  Tonight; we go again.

 

 

 

 

 

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New website!

Thursday 02 April

Hello again!  How I’ve missed you all!  You may have wondered where on God’s green earth I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. Fear not dearest readers, for I will regale all. The reason I have not been knocking out prose with wild abandon and detailing my recent deep debauchery, is because I’ve been having my website re-done!  I felt it was about time it had a face lift, and became the domain I’ve always wanted.  So here it is!  Look at the shiny new desk!  Marvel at the old school film projector gallery!  Be astounded by the sexy font!  Vomit at the cheesiness of the typewriter sounds!

Feel free to have a poke around.  All comments, suggestions, criticisms et al regarding the new design and layout of the site would be very welcome indeed!  Particularly from those of you who view on those horrible smartphones and such.  Drop me a line!

In the meantime, over the course of the next few days I will be racking my rapidly reducing anamnesis and dredging up the past, present and future to tell the tall tales of stupidity, heart-break, travel, theft and fungal infections that have importuned my life in the interim.  So you’ve a lot to look forward to over your tea and crumpets then.

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