the home of Poor Man’s Academia. Or PMA for short.
the camp I’m at is an ‘inclusive’ camp. Unlike an inclusive holiday, that doesn’t mean that you pay one fee for all the activities, it means that campers with educational or physical disabilities are mixed with those without.
This raises a couple of fairly interesting ideas, some of which I’m going to explore very briefly. This could be really boring.
Firstly – is inclusion a positive or a negative thing? And is it a real thing? In ‘real life’ you could argue that we practice inclusion, we don’t practice euthanasia on babies born with conditions that society deems ‘abnormal’ or ‘disabled’ and so we practice inclusion from the word go. But then we have special schools and special work places for people with both types of disability, we hospitalize and medicate them, we judge and exclude them.
Personally I think inclusion is a nonsense in that we should all be practicing it anyway. I was talking to the camp director today and I told her how I would demonstrate the futility of the idea of inclusion; get a bunch of Mr Potato Head dolls and instead of eyes and mouths, I’d have pins with ‘good a math’,’ blue eyes’, ‘great comedy timing’, ‘autism’ and ‘down syndrome’. The point being that fundamentally, we’re all Mr Potato Head dolls.
One thing that I don’t agree with is the idea that people have to be financially independent. I know that it’s the American dream and all but it’s fundamentally broken. If we’re fortunate, we need to share our fortune. I’m up for re-distribution of wealth, however I also am for Yachts. Life is full of contradictions.
It’s easy to say that the people who have a disability are the ones that benefit from inclusion but really, it’s the people without. Working and living in the kind of inclusion that is practiced here is really eye-opening. I keep saying that we’re all the same and that we just need to look after each other. Here they do just that, it’s pretty refreshing.
I followed Rale into what became one of my top 5 hostels anywhere in the world (so far). Dumped my bags and watched my driver wander around a bit looking up and down saying. “This is nice,” or something thereabouts. I pointed to the large, free American pool table in front of the large French windows opening onto the leafy smoking patio. “Game?” Big smile. And so it was that we played quite a few games of pool and he gave me a couple of cigarettes to smoke with him on the patio. He explained the nice places to go in Macedonia, how he and a friend were taking their families down to Okhrid, a picturesque national park bordering Albania that I had already noted with some interest from other Macedonians. It took a while to decipher the charade manoeuvres and muddled English, but as he became visibly annoyed at his inability I simply repeated my new mantra of: “Don’t worry mate, your English is better than my <insert national language>.”
I had asked him if he needed to get back to work he simply shrugged, “Why?” I thought about it; after all the cigarettes and petrol costs I was pretty sure he was making nothing from me so the embassy job must have been paying quite well. He left me with a hearty handshake when the hostel girl and her friend arrived back from the pizza shop. “He was weird.” She told me in Californian. But I didn’t think so, I thought he was possibly the nicest person I met in the whole Balkan. And I felt guilty about not calling him for a taxi again. But Skopje’s just too small, and anyway I had a guide–with a car.
My guide was Zdenka, a fun, local lesbian, with lots of insider knowledge and connections. She was the friend of the hostel girl, Elena, who was unfortunately tied down at the hostel while Zdenka took me on a complicated night out which began with a tragic Arsenal defeat to Man U and ended with us waking Elena (and the angry neighbours) up back at the hostel at around 7am. Me and Elena smoked out on the patio awhile while Zdenka and her bisexual lover with a boyfriend made out on the sofas.
“It’s quite a small kind of place isn’t it?”
“Everyone seems to know each other.”
“Yeah, I bet I know all the clubs you went to,” She named them all correctly but in the wrong order. “Yeah all the usuals, there isn’t a lot of choice.”
“Just like my town.” I told her.
Once I had recovered at about 4pm Zdenka arrived to tour me around town. We went for ‘breakfast’ at her dad’s restaurant, a Communist themed place which is placed within the Splurge section of my budget guidebook. I ate three courses of traditional Macedonian cuisine, including the national dish of baked beans in a pot. Scoff if you will, but unless you’ve tasted their baked beans I’ll tell you that you do so in pitiful ignorance, those were beans fit for Gods, and their white cheese was also exceptional. It should have cost me many euros but Zdenka simply put it down in her father’s name. She showed me around the fort and the Turkish Bazaar and later I went back to the hostel and met a Macedonian from the Bronx.
“Choo wanna play pool?” He asked.
“I’m from the Bronx.” He tells me in a Raging Bull/Bronx Bunny accent.
“Yeah, I’m a boxer,” saw that one coming, “and I’m Muslim as well.”
“So just don’t touch me, just don’t touch me. Sometimes, I just see things, like in the corner of my eye, and yeah I hit it. Cos’ choo jus’ don’ know what the fuck is coming at ya. Anytime, that’s jus’ the way it is these days. Its sad cos’ I’m a religious man essentially, I’m a man of peace, but just don‘t touch… It’s like I’m trained, I can do things with my fists, these fists. Choo jus’ wouldn’t know.”
“I don’t want to touch you.”
“Choo still wanna play pool?”
“Ok, well just don’t touch me.”
In short he was the most clichéd representation of anyone ever to come from the Bronx. The fact that I met him in Skopje in a little backstreet hostel thousands of miles from New York, made him mentionable. The only other resident, a Swede, taking a two week holiday to Macedonia (bizarre people the Swedes) thought he was crazy, and lived in constant fear of the pool table, I found the caricature entertaining however. And I began to construct numerous possible back stories leading to his appearance and our meeting in Skopje.
Skopje was one of the best places I visited for this reason. I hadn’t ever found myself so completely assimilated into a group of locals. Everything, the food, the nightlife, the sights I was shown, the friendliness of the locals, I couldn’t have asked for much more from such a small place on my last night Zdenka took me up the road to Mt Vodna past all the embassies. Here she showed me all the dodgy lay-bys diplomatic plates on quite a few of the bouncing vehicles, she told me which diplomats were gay (Zdenka is quite well known in the gay community) and all the local gossip before we stopped at the top to look down on the whole town. Some moody blue clouds were rolling over each other to approach the city from the east, but the last rays of Sun were blinding through the surrounding hills to dazzle the west half of the city. It all looked proportionally magnificent. Zdenka dropped me off at the hostel and I left her my details in England. I planned my onward route through Greece that night, and packed for the morning. Thoroughly satisfied with Skopje.
As I left I ran into Dennis at the train station, he robbed me of 3000 Macedonian Denar (I‘m saving this one for the book). This left my bank account almost empty, bar a modest sum, possibly equivalent to the resale value of Ben’s car, to get to Istanbul for my return flight home, in 2 weeks time. And as we all know:
14 Days ÷ Ben’s Car – Travel = Bugger All1
So I arrived in Greece, with a certain amount of anxiety. I visited Thessalonica with family as a ten-year old and loved it as one of my few junior expeditions into a world other than Scarborough. I distinctly remember going to visit the tomb of Phillip II, father of Alexander, which is located nearby; and falling in love with the mystery of Ancient Greece. This time around I slept in the train station, and then when they kicked me out at 3am, in the shrine of Mother Mary outside an Orthodox Church. I simply could not find a room or bed for less than 25 euros at such short notice.
‘Sleeping’ probably doesn’t give the right impression of what that night was like. I spent the most part growling at tramps and drunks eyeing up my backpack, catching maybe two hours before dawn. That dawn mercy seemed to take an age to come. As soon as it was light enough, I hacked off the side of a cardboard box, scribbled αθηνα2on it and walked two miles to find the motorway leading to Athens. After about four hours I decided I wasn’t going to find a hitch. So I traipsed all the way back to the station to find that a rail ticket to Athens only cost 6 pounds, and I left Thessalonica feeling that the innocent schoolboy who read and reread The Odyssey and tales of Alexander had died in me, or at least crawled further away from the misery of real-life adult disappointment.
I’m only doing this because I feel slightly threatened by Ben’s pretensions at trans-continental travel writing, as to be honest, I have of late lost my faith with the whole medium of blogging. Don’t worry though I have still put a modicum of effort into it so it may be–but probably isn’t–worth reading. Instead, you should probably shut down your computer, go outside, breathe some fresh air and talk to one person you have never ever spoken to in your life (and who isn‘t serving you a lager shandy or vice-versa). We should all do this every day, by law.
Rosie from Novi-Sad headed north from Dubrovnik, Croatia, after a bus station platform goodbye (my first one). From there she headed through Central Europe (Vienna, Bratislava, Prague) to Berlin, then on to France, and I believe she is just about making her way back to Birmingham now. I, on the other hand, headed south over the border to Montenegro, to a little seaside town called Kotor, a town full of Russian billionaires and their yacht crews. The little walled town nestled underneath the peak of the Mediterranean’s largest fjord was utterly charming.
A local family picked me up from the bus station and charged me crumbs to stay with them, they also drove me around the perilously narrow roads between the sea and the fjords.
Sun-soaked Kotor, I can safely say, was a beautiful surprise. Much more delicate and exclusive than its bigger Croatian neighbour Dubrovnik, it’s not exactly youthful but the Dalmatian Coast generally isn’t, so it helps to be able to stomach the mega yacht elite.
From here I headed inland to the capital Podgorica, a very different place. It had the youthful vigour visible in all the Former Yugoslav states, it’s the vigour of a student generation born under communism, raised in war and finally free to express themselves as willfully as ever before. Though not fully free from political injustice and corruption (Montenegro’s prime minister has been under investigation for ‘mafia-type’ tobacco smuggling charges in Italy since the early 2000’s), young ‘F-Yugoslavs’ have more gusto for life and debate than could be found in 5000 vacuous British teenagers. So it’s never completely dull hanging around in the Balkans.
Here I did my first couch surf, which was a highly rewarding experience. For those unfamiliar with the concept. CouchSurfing is a website for travellers, former travellers and would-be travellers; it enables them to make contact and stay on each others sofas. Essentially it’s Facebook for the backpacker fraternity. It’s actually remarkably safe due to a validation and referral system, where people vouchsafe you as sane; or hopefully even, in my case, quite sane. This system makes it difficult to become a Surfer, and as such I hadn’t been able to make much use of it previously in Europe. But in Podgorica I surfed with a Japo-French girl working an internship at the French embassy. I spent a pleasant few days hanging around with her stoner friend Snoopy.
We spent our time munching baklava on the hillside, and debating NATO’s bombing campaign in Yugoslavia. A subject which I knew too little about to be able to defend or criticise, either way. I still suspected Snoopy’s claim that his father, a pilot in the Yugoslavian Air Force, only ever bombed an unmanned Croatian weapons cache under a hill in the middle of nowhere as a denial of responsibility. It is fair to say that many Serbs still have something of chip on their shoulders and the War though I never brought it up in conversation, was always a hot topic; three or four times a Serb opened a conversation with, “You’re British? Oh, you bombed us.”
“Really we did? I had no idea, terribly sorry about that, it was probably for your own good.” Eyes on the floor, eyes on the floor, sip your drink, eyes on the floor.
I took a coach from Podgorica to Pristina capital of the newly established and only semi-recognised nation of Kosovo. Most of my travel in the south of Yugoslavia was by coach the lesser populated south is simply too mountainous to support a viable railway. These last three cities were all within 5 hours of each other though, so it isn’t all that taxing traveling between them.
Kosovo is still in Limbo, dependent on the US, Italian and any other first world country that fancies a spot of quick cash, for investing in its mineral wealth. For this reason a lot of anti-UN and EU antipathy has begun to manifest itself in the local Albanian majority and groups like Vetevendosje (meaning Self-Determination) have covered the walls of Pristina in anti-international graffiti referring to the UN‘s mission as neo-colonial. Looking around it was perhaps understandable, as you couldn’t imagine the luxury modern developments at one end of the city were going to be of any future benefit to the average Kosovar, but perhaps for the politicians and executives of the investing multinationals.
But such is the unfortunate way of the world, and I didn’t have time to dwell on the ethnic, economic, and political problems of the breakaway province so a couple of days later I took a coach south over the border into Macedonia, stopping in the capital Skopje. Here it struck me that I had visited every single Former Yugoslav state and its capital city. This was completely unintentional, and I had never made any certain plans in the months preceding my departure to visit even one Balkan state. But I in hindsight, I don’t think I could have spent a much more interesting and enjoyable month-and-half anywhere else in Europe. So I believe my Yugoslav feat is something to be proud of regardless of its accidental nature.
I found a candidate for world’s worst taxi driver in Podgorica ((I get angry just thinking about this guy so I won’t yet)), and for the best in Skopje. Rale: A large olive brown gentleman who spends most days chauffeuring diplomats between the embassies of the tiny city1. On a Thursday however he spends his days sleeping in his dilapidated Yugo while waiting for fares outside of the bus station. I tapped on his window.
“Yes, NO problems!”
“Er. Great, you know a hostel nearby?”
“I don’t speak English, get in!”
“You on a meter?”
“I don’t speak English, get in!”
I don’t know if it was his gentle but authoritative tone or the beaming brand-new dad smile he pulled off while opening the passenger door for me, but I felt compelled to get into a vehicle in an area with “unpredictable”2 standards of road safety, with a man who I could barely communicate, without any legal standard of pricing and no set destination.
For all my traveling experience gained, I will fully admit to being very stupid most of the time.
After driving me about a mile down an unknown road repeating the foreign word: hostel, over and over thoughtfully he asked, “You do,” pause, “speak Belgian?”
“Non français?” One of the languages of Belgium, “Je parle un petit français. Je veux aller à une auberge de jeunesse.” I tried to mangle this out but he cut me off with a wave of his hand. “No Belgium… I uh,” He, strangely, imitates steering a wheel whilst actually driving by clutching thin air with both hands and moving them side to side them in unison., “Embassy, Belgium.”
“You drive the Belgian ambassador around?”
“Yes!” He said with enthusiasm, I suppose he was very proud of his work.
“Very nice. I’m looking for a youth hostel.”
Then he had a thought to call his English speaking friend, and after handing the phone to be and a brief conversation in which I described my necessity for a youth hostel and my inability to explain this to Rale. The guy at the other end told me to hand the phone back, and after a few mumbled Macedonian words Rale hung up. Looked at me and “ah! Cheap hotel?”
“Yes sort of. About 20 euros a night kind of thing.”
He gave me another big smile. “Oh God I hope I haven’t just promised you 20 euros.”
After another few minutes of driving Embassy-chauffeur-driving-at-break-neck-speed-to-avoid-the-bullets-of-militant-insurgents kind of pace, we arrived at the ART hostel.
“Perfect. How much?” I added wincingly. Another big smile broke across his big face, I was prepared for the worst if this was anything like my ride in Podgorica. We had been in the car a good 25 minutes, and although most of it had been in a fairly miscellaneous direction, I was in no position to argue, him being much bigger than me and my bags being in the boot etcetera, etcetera.
“2 euro.” In Macedonia they use the Denar but euro is accepted quite frequently.
“Really?” my relief was tangible, he could have inhaled it if he wanted to. “2 Euro?”
“You want taxi,” he nodded and handed me his card, “Rale’s your taxi.”
“Awesome, thanks man!” He nodded and got out to help me with my bags. The hostel girl was at the gate just by chance, Rale asked her something in Macedonian. She told me in a distinct American accent, that he wanted to come in and have a look around the place for future reference. She told me what to do with the bags and told me I was in charge while she went out to get some pizza. Did I want some?
Yeah sure, that‘d be great. Hawaiian please.
- The US maintains its second largest embassy in Macedonia, a country only slightly larger than Wales, it is eight floors high with fifteen floors below ground level. Presumably it’s in a handy location for all the Americans dealing with neighbouring Kosovo [↩]
- http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travelling-and-living-overseas/travel-advice-by-country/europe/macedonia [↩]