Black birds and black mountains (Kosovo & Montenegro)
Since October 10th 2013: 136 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
I was flamed for being nice
I didn't know it before I met Ylli, but "being flamed" is slang for taking verbal abuse. The Saga is a nice project. The Saga inspires, educates and entertains. The Saga informs about the Red Cross Red Crescent movement and it promotes every country in the world positively. Not everyone wants the last part...
It's really easy to travel from Macedonias capital Skopje to Kosovos capital Pristina. I got on €5 bus and bada-bing! I was there 2.5 hours later. Looking out the window of the bus nothing has changed. It was still mountainous and beautiful. It was still agriculture dominating the scene: grapes, grains, vegetables... plants and soil do not give any thought to borders and politics.
Kosovo literally translates into: field of blackbirds.
Kosovo provides yet another debate for what is a country and what is not. While the Vatican (for me) continues to be the dumbest country in the world (until proven otherwise) I can add no such title to Kosovo. Kosovo may not be a United Nation (UN) member but does that matter at all? The UN is a club and not being in the club does not mean that you are not a country. Kosovo is the youngest European country and was formed in 2008. Today, almost 10 years later, Kosovo has received 115 diplomatic recognitions - 111 from UN countries which adds up to over 57%. I do not have a good definition for what is a country and what is not. However for years I have maintained that if at least half the world's countries recognize you for being a country; then you are a country. Serbia would strongly disagree! Serbia presides over an enormous regional amount of history. Serbias capital Belgrade sits on top of at least 8,000 years of history and ranks among the oldest in Europe! Serbia became a principality in 1815 and a kingdom in 1882. It was then a part of Yugoslavia from 1912 and declared its independence in June 2006. In 2008 the parliament of the province of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence with mixed response from the international community. Serbia has never approved of this however its government has begun to "normalize" relationships with its former province.
Remember Ylli? We coincidently both featured in this brief appearance on Al Jazeera when I was 6,000k away in Djibouti: https://youtu.be/qD_IyfS5u80
Kosovo has enjoyed extensive support from the United States of America to such a degree that some people in Pristina jokingly refer to Kosovo as a "USA state in the balkans". Anyway...I declared on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that I was exited to reach the Sagas country number 135!! This received a few angry outbursts such as: "time to unfollow" and "fuck off". There was also a little more severe "flaming" which isn't entirely appropriate or necessary to reproduce here. I checked out the profiles and sure enough they were Serbian. One had been following since 2014...what a shame.
Personally I feel that Kosovo is a bit of a strange country? It's ethnicity is up towards 90% Albanian which means that the Albanian flag is dominant throughout the country and so is the language. When I asked several people from Kosovo if it wouldn't make more sense to become a part of Albania, I was told that the difference between the people was too great. I don't know if you can compare it to suddenly bringing Italian or Irish New Yorkers back to their original European countries. Or Haitians back to West Africa. Probably not a spot on example but yet some idea in the right direction. Albania wasn't a part of Yugoslavia and Kosovo was.
The NEWBORN monument gets a "make over" every year. This year the N and the W has been laid down to spell 'NO WALLS' on the ground.
Pristina is worth a visit. Nights in Pristina are amazing.
You can definitely sense that Kosovo is a young country and I wouldn't know what to say if someone asked of me to define something typically Kosovan? It's not the food, the clothes nor the language. Perhaps it could relate to a mentality but I didn't stay long enough to read it. Probably Kosovo needs more time to form into a good wine. A lot of Balkan countries, by the way, happen to claim they have better wine than France. I don't know much about wine either...but I know what I like ;) Pristina is a great name for a capital. It's not a pretty city to me. Pristina looks like it was built really fast in recent times by 50 different contractors who didn't all finish. Meanwhile there are are some really nice places in Pristina such as the Boulevard Nene Tereza which cuts through the center of the city. It is actually exceptionally nice! People are nice too. The food is good and plentiful. Most museums are free and the surrounding landscape is breathtaking with its mountains and green fields. Euro is the Kosovar currency and a meal goes for about €2-3! It's a very kind country towards a $20/day budget.
The Kosovo Red Cross are doing an amazing job. Lots of activities! And by government law you can't get your drivers license in Kosovo without first passing your first aid exam. http://www.redcross-ks.org/new/ supplies the course and administers the exam.
The country itself boast lots of interesting things for its visitors. Tourism isn't well developed yet but has great potential. Much of the historical tourism relates to various remnants from periods in history of vanished empires, kingdoms and countries. Geographically it is highly suitable for hiking and exploring canyons and caves. While there are distinct differences to be found within the Balkan Peninsula you'll quickly notice a lot of similarities as well. A really important and delightful similarity is that the people are fantastically friendly and forthcoming. Really if I were you: I'd just get here really quick and stay off the topic of politics ;)
Prizren is worth a visit.
Getting to Montenegro was something else! I was given the option between taking the bus from Kosovo to Montenegro's capital Podgorica. However I was told that the road wasn't great. The other option was to go through the northern part of Albania where I was told that the road was really good! Actually it didn't sound like much of a choice. What was lost in translation was however that the bus heading through Albania didn't go to Podgorica. That bus only went as far as Ulcin (in Montenegro just across the border from Albania). Both busses only left in the evening. Time wasn't really on my side as I had committed to meeting with the Red Cross of Montenegro the following morning at 9am. I was dreaming about a nice luxury bus and a fairly good nights sleep. Instead I was served an uncomfortable seat which did not provide me with enough legroom. It was probably a Chinese bus and my kneecaps were pressed firmly into the back of the seat before me. The seat before me had a grumpy old man who enjoyed banging his back into the seat so we had a lot of fun that night. The bus stopped 3-4 times and since I had an aisle seat I had to get up each time as the fellow next to me always wanted out. Crossing the borders was no hassle and the road was really good. The unwanted bonus was for me to arrive at Ulcin at 03:30am having to wait 2.5 hours for a bus to Podgorica. That is really not the time of the day you want to wait for anything! I think I managed about 2 hours of sleep on a bench before getting on another bus reaching Podgorica at 08:00am. I freshened up at the bus terminal's public toilets looking slightly human around 08:30am and walked to the Red Cross reaching them at 9am.
Montenegro literally translates into: black mountains.
At the Red Cross of Montenegro everything became so much easier! I was greeted by a delegation of smiling women who were friendly and curious to discover what kind of madman who would undertake such an adventure as the Saga? I was offered tea and breakfast while I rambled on about the world, challenges, strangers, friends, inspiration, the Red Cross, the media, my fiancée, my past, the future, logistics and a whole lot more! These women were great! They had laid out a formidable plan for my visit and offered me true Montenegrin hospitality on every account.
Roma children in the classroom at Konik. Solid work carried out by a dedicated National Society: www.ckcg.co.me
From tent camps to newly constructed apartment buildings.
Marta is a dedicated programme coordinator and introduced me to their impressive results of creating better life conditions for Roma populations in Montenegro. I was shown around at Camp Konik where the Red Cross had successfully implemented education, health and social inclusion on a large scale. What used to be tent camps had become apartment buildings and children were growing like flowers through education, music workshops and contact with Red Cross volunteers. It's a new page in the book for more than 1,000 people and it wouldn't have come to this without international cooperation, great dedication, vision and passion. Well done Marta and everyone else :)
Later that day Natasa, from International Relations, arranged for me to see a bit of Montenegro. Did you know that Montenegro is frequently referenced as one of Europe's most beautiful countries? I don't dispute it! From this point on it wasn't about the Red Cross anymore - it was about Montenegro. Vesko and Goran from the office joined us and together the 4 of us raced out of Podgorica and into the mountains. We made a brief stop at Citinje, which is the old royal capital of Montenegro. Montenegro is truly "littered" with interesting history and I don't know where to start and when to stop. The history dates back well before the Roman Empire but let's just start there. That was followed by the Byzantine empire and then around 650 years ago it became a kingdom. Later on it developed into a "Prince-Bishopric" (for 150 years) and nurtured the great Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, who was not only Prince-Bishop but was also a poet and philosopher whose works are widely considered some of the most important in Montenegrin and Serbian literature! Furthermore his mausoleum is located on top of a mountain which is overlooking Citinje providing stunning views for those who venture up there. The Prince-Bishopric discontinued as government and state was separated. It became a principality, a kingdom and was then swallowed by Yugoslavia until independence in 2006. And don't forget that there was 500 years of influence from the Ottoman Empire too! ;)
Vesko climbed to the top with me so we could take a peak at Petar II Petrović-Njegoš' mausoleum and its impressive surroundings.
I really can't go into every little detail of that day. Suffice to say that it was a good day and that Montenegro begs for much more time. When you start doing research on Montenegro you'll quickly discover and endless list of things to do and see. It shouldn't be possible considering the size of the country. It's however true. How about this for a random fact: more than 5,000 artifacts were found in a cave called 'Crvena Stijena' (red rock) and this archeological site dates back around 180,000 years! Or how about this: Biogradska Gora is the site of one of the last three large virgin forests in Europe and it's a rainforest!?
From left to right: Vesko, Natasa and Goran.
Kotor old town.
Natasa, Vesko, Goran and I managed to see some old towns as well and if I was to go into detail, this would become a book. Just book your next vacation to the balkans and go and be amazed. The day ended rather late and I still had to get online to reply to emails, updating social media and getting my bearings. I could have been classified as "living dead" when my head hit the pillow. That was a LONG but fruitful day thanks to Natasa and the gang.
I get a distinct feeling that it's good to be a guy at the Red Cross in Montenegro.
They love meat in Montenegro. Here's my "meat with meat". Traditional food served for tourists ;)
Today I was guided about by a group of Red Cross volunteers who wanted to show me Podgorica. It has me wondering if I've met anyone in Montenegro who wasn't Red Cross? Anyway it was raining and we defied the elements to see as much as possible. Podgorica is a nice and modern city however there isn't much to see compared with the countries cultural richness. Definitely a nice city but I'd "get out there" if I were you. As it turns out people in both Kosovo and Montenegro are just people. Who would have thought? ;) There are Game of Thrones billboards on the roadsides, fidget spinners in the shop windows, lots of Facebook and WhatsApp accounts and people get married and fall in love here too...or is it the other way around? I haven't applied for a visa for a few months now and in spite of Montenegro's fancy name the country is very generous to my budget as well.
Hram Hristovog Vaskserja is impressive inside and out.
Before I sign off I just want to tell you that people around here are kind, warmhearted, curious and genuine. You win more than you loose by heading this way.
I don't want to leave... I do have to go.