Mallorca, Spain

If you told me where I’d be now and who I’d be with way back in January, I’d… I don’t know!  But if you asked me in April – well, look at the end of my last entry in my South America blog for a quick hint.

This is certainly not what I was expecting eight months ago, but it’s the most apropos way for me to end this trip.

After ending my South American leg with Oscar and Silvia, it only seemed fitting to end my Europe leg with them again, after we split up in Ecuador to head around the world in opposite directions.  At their invitation, I spent 15 days at their home in beautiful Mallorca. Continue reading

Côte d’Azur (France, Monaco)

One last NUS friend to visit! I wasn’t able to meet up with Ivan in his native Serbia, but the Cote d’Azur more than suffices! Unfortunately, there are no hostels in Cannes, where he was staying with his sister. I stayed in Nice, the largest and cheapest city in the area, but a 1.5 hour bus ride away. Oddly enough for what may be the most expensive region in Europe, that bus only costs 1€!

It was five days of heading to the beach, walking around some very pretty Mediterranean towns, experiencing the famed rudeness of people from the region, ogling rich people with their expensive cars and terrifyingly wrinkly tans, and eating way too many pains au chocolat. All that leads to a pretty darn good time. We met up with Olympio in Cannes, walked at least three loops around Antibes, felt centuries out-of-place in the medieval area of Cagnes (which feels more like a lived-in open-air museum), dived head first into giant waves in Nice, and witnessed a double-rainbow framed by both Monaco’s palace and casino. Guess there really is gold at the end of a rainbow.

Oh, and somewhere in all of that, helped carried a grand piano up five flights of stairs.

Dublin and Inishmore, Ireland

Ireland is the last new country of my trip, and my final portion of solo backpacking.

Just like for Macedonia and Kosovo, I wasn’t planning on being here.  The Schengen problem led me here, and it seemed an appropriate way to decompress from the emotional turmoil of the last little while and the funeral in Stockholm.  While I had a week for Ireland, in contrast to Macedonia and Kosovo, I chose to keep the number of destinations low and spend more time in each.

I spent a couple days in Dublin (Irish: Áth Cliath), which is quite small.  Admittedly I wasn’t in too much of a mood to see things.  The rain didn’t help – it felt like a rain cloud was following me half the time!  You can literally see that it isn’t raining across the street, or vice-versa.  On a city tour, I learned a little more about the history – the shamrock (Catholics explaining the Trinity), invasions, countless failed uprisings, gaining independence from the UK in 1922, the Northern Ireland split due to religious causes (Rep. Ireland is Catholic, the North is Protestant), and the droughts that killed so many and caused many others to emigrate, bringing Irish culture and pride (see St. Patrick’s Day, a largely expat creation) around the world with them while causing Ireland to lose 20% of its population that it has never recovered from.  Still, how mere religious divisions can cause wars is really lost on me. Continue reading

Pristina and Prizren, Kosovo

Before I start, a note — Kosovo (Albanian: Kosova) is recognised by roughly half of the world’s countries as an independent country, Canada included. Others do not support or outright reject the claim, continuing to recognise it as an autonomous province of Serbia under UN administration, as Serbia itself continues to assert.

Kosovo was never on my radar for this trip, but with three extra days lying around before I needed to head back to Istanbul, it seemed like a good opportunity to see what was there, especially since the only things I’ve ever heard about Kosovo are unfortunately news stories about war and tension. Kosovo is also Europe’s newest country, having declared independence unilaterally in 2008. Around both cities I went to, I found pro-independence and anti-Serbia graffiti. Yet oddly for an independent country, three flags are flown commonly – Kosovo’s, yes, but also Albania and USA. During Kosovo’s pre-independence days, Albania’s flag was flown for its primarily Albanian population wishing to assert itself from Serbia. America’s flag is flown due to George Bush Sr. and especially Bill Clinton’s support of the country during its more tumultuous days; both presidents have large streets named after them in Pristina, and there’s even a statue of Bill Clinton…with a shop named “Hilary” next to it! Continue reading

Bitola and Ohrid, Macedonia

On my way to Macedonia’s crown jewel, Lake Ohrid, I decided to make a little pit stop in Bitola for a look at the country’s second-largest (though still pretty small) city.  Well, our bus itself took a long pit stop on the way there – there was an accident in front of us on a small road, with not enough room to u-turn.

At least we were stuck in some pleasant scenery.  Being the only non-Macedonian on the bus was a little bit strange at first.  As our bus stood waiting on the road, some of us went in and out to see the accident or just to get some fresh air.  After a long time, a younger looking man, Antonio, struck up a conversation with me, curious as to what I was doing in Macedonia.  He spoke some English – not great, but enough for me to understand kind of what he wanted to say; so we kept our conversation topics pretty basic.  I appreciated the effort but I felt bad that I wasn’t able to reciprocrate in his language (or any of the other ones he speaks better – Albanian and Turkish.  They have to learn a lot of languages in school!  On multiple occasions when he wasn’t certain, he called his girlfriend, who spoke better English and also computer access to Google Translate!  Aww. Continue reading

Skopje, Macedonia

I’ll admit I knew absolutely nothing about the Republic of Macedonia (Republika Makedonija with a hard “k”, not a soft “c”) before coming.  Well, other than the fact that Greece disputes their name, causing them to be admitted into the UN under the clunky provisional reference name of “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (“FYROM” for short, pronounced like “fee-rom”), over the claim that most of ancient Macedon lies in current Greece.  Oh, and I knew Macedonia’s flag – unique in design, one of my favourites around cause looking at it just makes me happy.

But I came here because of my Schengen area restriction.  As a Canadian, I’m only allowed to travel in the Schengen area (the shared customs zone that encompasses much of Europe, where you can cross borders without having your passport checked) for 90 days within a 180 day period.  There is no option to extend this short of applying for school or residency.  With Sweden now on my itinerary as well as promises to meet people in France and Spain, all of which would use up the rest of my allowance, I needed to stay outside of the Schengen zone for at least a few weeks.  Turkey was supposed to be my remedy for this, but with no desire to stay there, I opted to head to a nearby non-Schengen country.  Back in Israel, Bernhard suggested Macedonia…so here I am! Continue reading

Istanbul, Turkey

I was supposed to travel through Turkey with Sally for two weeks.  When I received the bad news, I wanted to cancel my flight entirely.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible.  But with my Schengen zone allowance running out and Istanbul being a good hub city to go anywhere, I eventually decided to take the flight anyway and completely restructured the rest of my trip to re-allot the non-Schengen days I was to spend in Turkey to other countries I hadn’t planned on going to.

I think that Sally probably would’ve wanted me to continue travelling Turkey.  But I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it – and I think my short stay in Istanbul only confirmed that.  I did do some sight seeing, met some people, had a nice time…but the whole time, I couldn’t help thinking of who was missing.  One day, another year, I’ll come back and do Turkey some justice, see it with a better mindset. Continue reading

Tel Aviv, Israel

Rather than taking the same way back we came to keep the stamp out of my passport (Bernhard didn’t care anymore), we took the risk and crossed from Aqaba, Jordan to Eilat, Israel.  Despite having no entry stamp into Jordan and no form with the stamp either, they let us through – it just took some explanation and a big smile.  Israel, as usual, offered the option to stamp on a piece of paper; this time I got the form, which certainly makes leaving the country easier.  (I wonder what Israelis think of this whole security thing.  We were told, “You look nervous!” when we approached, despite being far from it – intimidation factor?  We were questioned at length about how we knew each other, what exactly we were doing in Singapore, and a ton of personal details unrelated to the trip.  Yet going through the bag check, I had an agent who was cracking jokes.  But again, going through it all with a smile always works.)

Realising that in all of Israel, we had only seen the ethnically and religiously divided Jerusalem, Bernhard and I decided to head to Tel Aviv to catch a better glimpse of Israeli life.  We admittedly had low expectations at first – Tel Aviv has an international reputation of being a hard-partying city, with its big beach and nightlife – but came away pleasantly surprised and extremely positive. Continue reading

Aqaba, Jordan

We arrived in Aqaba, intending to partake in some snorkelling (diving being out of the question with my eardrum almost but not fully recovered) or just some beach time by the Red Sea.

Well, that went out the window pretty fast.  At the hotel, a big gust of wind blew the door shut…on my fingers.  Profuse bleeding on the floor commenced.  My right ring fingertip was badly bruised, but my middle fingertip was a completely mangled mess.

The hotel receptionist helped me out, cleaning my wound with alcohol (OWWW) before taking me to a pharmacy nearby, as he had no bandaging.  A curious old man, the owner of a souvenir shop beside the pharmacy, came in with us.  The pharmacist was a woman in niqab (wearing the full face veil save for the eye slit) – obviously for a Muslim woman that devout, she couldn’t touch or treat me.  Handing over more alcohol, gauze, and tape, the receptionist and the kind old man followed her direction and wrapped me up. Continue reading

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Given how I seem to suffer from heat exhaustion and a stomach illness after each desert visit I do (well, all of two), I was initially apprehensive about coming to Wadi Rum.

Oh, how naive I can be sometimes.  I certainly didn’t suffer at all this time – in fact, Wadi Rum was at a downright comfortable temperature most of the time – but I certainly didn’t expect the scenery that was coming.  (Again, I’m glad I didn’t spoil myself with photos beforehand!)  I’ve been travelling for awhile now, and certainly I’m a little bit jaded, but this one really blows everything out of the water.  Oh, and I had no idea that this area is where T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) was based.  I also have no knowledge of his story, other than what I’ve just learned while there – he worked for the British as a liaison to the Arabs, in support of their revolt against the Ottoman Turks; though friendly to the Arabs, he struggled with the knowledge that his assistance was with an ulterior British motive and tried unsuccessfully to fight for Arab independence.  I’ve also never watched that famous movie (also filmed in this area)…but I guess I’ll have to now!  More recent movies have been filmed here as well, usually with Wadi Rum standing in for alien planets given the stark landscape and the red sand. Continue reading