My dad came to visit me in Dakar a couple of weeks ago. He (and my mum, who didn’t come this time, which is a problem I will come back to) had already been to visit in 2014, when we made it up to Saint Louis in the North AND down to the Casamance in the south as well as checking off most of Dakar’s (extremely small) list of tourist sights. Still, we made it up to the Africa’s tallest (and perhaps ugliest) monument where dad’s hat blew off in the wind and had to be collected by a teenager loitering on the steps, and we shook hands with 20 school children.
I had an itching to get out of Dakar – I hadn’t been anywhere since I got back from Scotland after Christmas – and go somewhere I’ve never been before and we decided on the Sine Saloum and the Ecolodge in Simal in particular.
The lodge staff gave me a phone number for a taxi driver who knew the road (in theory) and all was going well (well, ok, he missed a turning and added maybe half an hour to the 4 hour journey, but not to worry) until we got to the village where the lodge is.
It turns out Dakar taxis are not made for driving through deep sand. We got stuck. Completely, utterly, twenty men and boys from the village can’t get us out stuck. The driver, Abdulaay, ended up calling the lodge to ask them to tow us out, while my dad and I were ushered under a tree in a family compound where we were handed a baby (with the obligatory, super awkward “take him with you!” joke) and bought delicious peanuts and generally amused the women and children with my questionable Wolof for half an hour or so.
Having been rescued by the lodge’s 4×4, we finally made it to the place we were staying. Ecolodge Simal is right on the river bank, and it is made up of a collection of round traditional-style (I’m sure I read Fula style somewhere, but I can’t find that source any more, so don’t take my word for that) huts. Traditional, but with added running solar-power hot water and electricity, that is. Is there anything better than a private hot shower in the open air?
There’s a little bar and food is served from a set menu, included in the price (I have never eaten so much fish in my life), and other than that there is a pool, a couple of hammocks and nothing else. It is very peaceful. Except for the part when I woke up at 2 am with a bird in my hut.
Do I look relaxed yet?
Dad sure does.
The weather wasn’t great as the harmattan haze was in full force, but it was still lovely just to sit and watch boys washing horses in the river or a flock of swallows swooping over the swimming pool. Or the cows on the beach. Somehow, in Senegal, there are always cows on the beach.
We took a little boat trip among the mangroves and played rummy and drank beer. I also refused to talk or think about my research for a couple of days, so that it felt like a real holiday.
There was an unexpected problem with my dad coming to stay without my mum. When we made a quick stop into the market in Dakar, one of the vendors said something about my husband. ‘Who?’ ‘Your husband!’. Pointing at my father. I, horrified, corrected them (with an ew, that’s my dad) and didn’t translate that. Then, the taxi driver to Simal, who had by this point been talking to me on and off for most of the four hour journey, asked why my ‘husband’ was going to the airport on Sunday and I wasn’t. At least he was extremely apologetic when I corrected him! Then someone in the lodge thought the same thing. My dad was joking that he must look very young for his age… but I think it’s more the case that an age gap of 36 years wouldn’t be particularly outrageous in this country. As if to illustrate my point, the hotel was frequented by a couple of cliched sets of unattractive old French men and young pretty Senegalese women. I suppose I shouldn’t judge. They might be wonderful people and deeply in love. Maybe.
On the way back, the same taxi driver picked us up (no getting stuck this time!) and took us to the airport where Dad headed home and I caught the bus back to Dakar. This was actually terrible planning on my part – I ended up retracing almost the entire journey to Sine Saloum, plus another eight hours (of which three or four were waiting for a ferry) to go The Gambia on a visa run less than a week later. Ugh. At least I managed to recruit a friend to come with me!
Apparently going to Kololi in the last weekend of March is a thing I do, so I’m not going to write about it because a) I found this old post from 2013 and this one from 2015 and nothing has changed except the posters of Jammeh’s face everywhere have been replaced by adverts or empty billboards, and b) it’s literally my least favourite place I’ve been in the world. Have a gratuitous photo of a monkey eating a peanut instead:
It turns out that finding somewhere to live in Dakar is quite a tricky task. When I was here before, I was exceptionally lucky – I spent my first year in accommodation provided by my employer along with a group of other expats, and just when I got a real salary and therefore had to find my own place, a couple of friends of a friend were leaving their flat. I took over their lease and paid a lump sum for all of their furniture and all the bits and bobs they left behind – it was so easy (well, apart from spending four hours in a stairwell the day I moved in because it turned out they had given me the wrong key). Even more conveniently, when I was leaving, one half of the couple had just returned to Dakar, and so bought all the same furniture back again!
I hadn’t quite appreciated how lucky I had been, until I came back and started to search. Initially, I was hoping to find someone who was leaving to conduct the same kind of deal, but I had planned poorly for that: there’s an expat exodus at the start of summer, and far more people are arriving than leaving at this time of year. The other options are furnished apartments, flatshares, and unfurnished places.
Getting a furnished place sounds like the sensible option, but they are so expensive – and rarely furnished in a style that I could live with, usually featuring copious amounts of pleather and/or velour. Still, I looked at a couple that were in my budget: one was a studio at the top floor of a family home – you had to actually go through the house to get to it, I have visions of tiptoeing in after a night out just as people are getting up to pray – and it was filthy, all the furniture was falling apart. There was one large bedroom-lounge, a small bathroom, and one other room ,which, the owner told me, would be the kitchen. ‘I’ll put a fridge here, and an oven here, a little table here and a shelf for the plates here’. Ok, I see, I said. But, well, there’s no kitchen sink? ‘You don’t need a sink, there’s a bathroom’. Right.
The other one I saw was advertised to me by a courtier (I’m not sure of the English translation of this job title – it’s not quite an agent, but a broker for agents, who will take you to see flats for a small ‘visiting charge’ and a substantial sum when you find one) as a ‘furnished studio by the beach’. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? The description was not untrue – it was by the beach, and it was furnished. Unfortunately, you would never know it was by the beach because there were no exterior windows whatsoever, and the furniture was two double beds in opposite corners of a room small enough that you had climb over point at which they met to get to the bathroom. There was a kitchen sink, but the kitchen otherwise consisted of a bottle of gas with a little stove attachment, in a cupboard in the hall.
After these attempts, I gave up on finding somewhere furnished. I also swiftly gave up on the idea of a flatshare, because it’s generally not much cheaper to rent a room than it is to rent an entire empty flat, and who wouldn’t choose the latter, given the option?
I recruited a friend to help my find an empty flat in my budget – I’m not sure he knew we would end up seeing 12 in one day, and going through three courtiers. With every viewing my list of necessities grew longer, from a modest list: 1 (or 2) bedroom(s), separate living room, not on the ground floor (I believe in at least giving wannabe robbers a challenge), must either have hot water or the pipes necessary to fit a water heater (I know it gets cold in January) and of course, a kitchen sink. Then, we added must have windows in the bedroom, after seeing a couple of places that did not. Next: must be in a building which is fully built – there is a LOT of construction work going on in this part of town at the moment , and there are whole neighbourhoods of half built buildings – which, as well as the noise of buildings, doesn’t exactly make for a safe walk home. Then: must have a kitchen that is part of the same building – the courtier couldn’t quite understand my objection to having a kitchen accessible across the roof (in case you’re also struggling it’s partly not wanting to have to lock and unlock two doors if I need to venture to the kitchen at night, and partly because I’d quite like the option of going to the kitchen when it’s too hot for clothes). Also: must have a kitchen big enough for a fridge AND an oven. I know, I’m such a diva.
Just when we were about to give up (actually I had given up hours before but my friend and the courtier wouldn’t let me go home), we found it! A studio (in the Senegalese usage of the word, which is actually quite a large one bed flat) in a family house (but with a separate stair case) with lots of natural light (but unfortunate flickering strip lighting…) and even a hot water heater (… which I’ve just discovered doesn’t work).
I have been here for a few weeks now and I’m mostly settled in, having bought all the essentials – mostly second hand. My plan when I leave is to sell all the stuff to someone (or to my landlady, who is interesting in renting it out furnished). Fingers crossed it’s that easy!
I’ve been back in Dakar for eight days now, the start of 10 months or so of PhD fieldwork. It somewhat feels like I’ve gone back in time (new readers: don’t mistake that for a slur against Africa, I mean back only to 2013-15, when I lived here). The journey involved an overnight stay in Heathrow (yes, even though I live in London, my flight was at 6 am) and a personal driver from plane to plane in Lisbon (I had a 45 minute transfer time, and we were 15 minutes late – I was envisioning having to sprint through the airport so being driven like some celebrity was quite a treat!).
I am Airbnb hopping while I find a more permanent home. For the last week I’ve been in the same neighbourhood as I lived in before, waking up to the same slightly-mournful sounding mosque in the morning (my parents claim it sounds like the Free Church). Nothing much has changed in that part of town, except that the supermarket, where all the same people are still working, no longer gives out plastic bags (there was a ban put in place since I left but…it only really seems to have affected the supermarket). Even the same creepy guy trying to talk English to me, but this time I am smart enough not to give him my phone number so he can call me on repeat in the middle of the night every day.
Today, I had to move AirBnBs because the one I have been in was reserved for this week. I left it kind of late to book somewhere, hopeful until Wednesday that I might find an apartment before the weekend. The room I booked was cheap and apparently cheerful, a simple room in a house that has several rooms out for rent, with shared bathroom and kitchen, on the university campus – handy for, you know, actually starting some of the work I’m here to do, maybe? I turned up this morning with my 50 kilos of luggage (one marriage proposal already under my belt before 10 am, thanks guard at the previous Airbnb), and there was a guy who we will call Mohammed, because that’s his very unidentifiable name, who led me through a living room which itself had a rented-out bed in it, into a room which definitely wasn’t the room I had seen on Airbnb. The one on Airbnb was small and sparse, but clean. This one, evidently his or another young man’s bedroom, was larger and full of stuff – everything from prayer beads to laptops to dirty socks and baby’s dummies. And it was filthy. Oh so filthy. Hairs all over the unchanged sheets and pillows and floor filthy. Bin overflowing with questionable used tissues filthy. Dead ants everywhere filthy.
I complained, of course, and asked if I could just have the room I booked, please – but the guard was sleeping there, so Mohammed sent the house cleaner in. She was in the room for no more than five minutes during which Mohammed left for the day, and I waited on the couch outside, before she plopped down next to me with a scowl. I asked her if she was finished and she said she was… but going back into the room it was clear all she had done was put a new sheet on the bed. The pillows, which had no pillow cases, were still that oily, smelly kind of dirty that you only get after months of use, and which there is NO WAY I was putting my hair on. Even the bin was still overflowing!
At this point I should explain, in case you think I am being a diva: the only other place I have checked into and out of in the same day is somewhere that I only left because I realised that it was probably actually a brothel, and only then because there was blood on the sheets. I have stayed in some RANK places. Once upon a time in Thailand, I spent five days in a beach hut shared with a rat, a lizard, a tarantula and a multitude of insects, all at the same time (it’s still one of the best places I’ve ever stayed). In Kenya, five years ago, I did actually sleep in someone else’s stinking sheets for a night because it didn’t occur to me until the middle of the night that the smell was something human, not just damp. So, I did consider sucking it up and staying in the gross room today. AND THEN I REMEMBERED I AM AN ADULT AND I AM TOO OLD FOR THIS NONSENSE.
So I emailed the owners, on holiday somewhere, gave them an hour to respond before filing a complaint with Airbnb. And then, afraid to leave wifi in case I got a response, I waited. I had eaten nothing all day and soon ran out of drinking water but it was only FIVE HOURS later that I got a full refund (plus a measly 10% compensation) because Airbnb hadn’t managed to contact the owners either and my photographic evidence was enough to rest my case. I’ll spare you from the photos.
So, quickly, I rebooked somewhere else (more expensive. Because I can). I called the owner, who sent me a street address with a door number as if anyone has ever managed to arrive anywhere with a street address in Senegal. But I left the gross place, jumped in a taxi (not so easy, with all these bags), and headed for the neighbourhood… and when I got there, the new Airbnb owner didn’t answer my phonecalls to explain where his place is, and the taxi driver got so angry that I had to get out at the side of the road, where a man in a stupidly big car promptly parked right in front of me so I couldn’t flag down a new taxi without moving all my bags.
It was probably about this point that I burst into tears. I’m not very emotionally stable when I’m starving and exhausted and lost and stressed and stranded and hot and able to literally feel my skin burning with every passing second. Lots of people stared – I must have looked ridiculous – no one asked me if I was ok.
Finally, the Airbnb host called me, I put him on the phone with a taxi driver to explain where the place is, and got in the car, agreeing to a ridiculous amount for such a short journey. Then it became obvious that the taxi driver hadn’t actually understood the directions he had agreed to (it turns out my host speaks less Wolof than I do, but I didn’t know that at this point) so stopped a random man by yelling “hey, dégg nga tubaab?” – ‘hey, do you speak white-person?’ – and got HIM to speak to the host on the phone and finally explain that the place was literally about 100m from where I had been stranded.
So I rocked up in tears. The guy was apologetic about missing my 12 phonecalls, and the room is lovely. Spotless. Not a hair or a used tissue in sight and they changed the sheets in front of me. Best of all, they have a gorgeous little toddler, who seemed to recognise that I was upset and within two minutes of meeting me, attached herself to my leg with a hug and a grin, cheering me up how only a little kid can.
I think it is safe to say the rose-tinted glasses I have been sporting when it comes to my previous time in Senegal have been well and truly smashed, and I am back on the rollercoaster that is life here.
In summary: eight days = three Airbnbs; two taxis with pieces falling off them while driving (it’s never a good sign when your taxi driver gets out with a screwdriver mid-journey); five marriage proposals; three men thrusting their unwanted phone number at me; 15+ apartment viewings (next blog post…); one sandstorm and one downpour; three times getting lost in ridiculous temperatures; one minor injury (I fell up the stairs, my legs are blue) and a whole lot of mosquito bites; six yards of wax fabric purchased; approximately 24 litres of water consumed; two power cuts; one flooded bathroom (not my fault!); three old friends met on purpose and two more run into accidentally; approximately 53450243925 greetings; the same conversation in wolof times 100; loads of bread because it’s too hot to cook and there are no vegetables around anyway, and one hamburger-without-the-meat please.
When I left off, Ben and I had just arrived back in Pristina, and checked into the same hostel we had stayed on our first night. But as soon as we had dumped our bags, we turned around and headed back to the bus station, because there was one town left to see, one that I was most interested in.
Mitrovica is a town in Northern Kosovo, but, if you cross the bridge across the river to the Northern part of the town, you might wonder if you haven’t crossed a border. A few metres across the river, and everything changes to reflect the Serbian population. Signs and prices in shops are in Serbian, not Albanian, and Serbian Dinar comes out of the cash machine instead of Euros (yes, we had to get some for our collections). The Albanian flags that hang all over Kosovo (their own flag being a much rarer sight) are replaced with Serbian (and Russian) flags, and the statues depicted old Christian dudes instead of Albanian war heroes and Bill Clinton.
A confession: the FCO does warn against “all but essential travel” to the northern part of Mitrovica. Things do, apparently, kick off from time to time. But we were sensible and asked all our hosts along our hostel route about the current situation, and while most of them didn’t exactly understand why we would want to visit, they didn’t say it was unsafe. Still, the niggling anxiety about this knowledge might have been the reason why the northern part of town just felt a little different from the rest of Kosovo – people seemed to be eyeing us a little suspiciously as we wondered around. It’s fair enough, we agreed – any travellers who come through here are only here to look at how different things are. We did at least make a very small contribution to the local economy by stopping for a drink in a cafe – served by a grumpy waiter whose demeanour completely switched when we said we wanted to pay in those dinar Ben got from the machine rather than in Euros.
The bus to get there had taken far long than expected, however, and we were sensible enough to think that maybe we shouldn’t stay in an area the FCO recommends against visiting after dark, so dashed off for the bus before the sun started to go down.
Pristina – again
Our flight wasn’t until late afternoon, so we had a few hours to explore Pristina on our last morning. We had already accidentally wandered past many of the sights, and were a little monastried out, so there wasn’t too much left to tick off – we managed to fit in a quick spin around the bizarre architecture of the National Library and a photo opportunity at the Newborn monument – which is redecorated every year and this week the N and W have been pushed down so that it also reads NO WALLS – HINT HINT PRESIDENT TRUMP, and then we headed to a swimming pool we had heard existed in a park out of town.
This pool. Oh man. It was the biggest swimming pool I have ever seen in my life, almost lake sized. And it was so busy, full of shrieking children and flirting teenagers. If you swam out to the middle, though, you could still find a spot to float in relative peace – although I slightly regretted this after my knees hurt for the following fortnight. (I was trying not to advertise my fancy camera in such a pick-pocketable place, so Google Germia Park for photos).
So, should you add Kosovo to your holiday destination list?
I started this three-part blog post by asking what comes to mind when you hear the word Kosovo. I hope that it has helped to dispel the images of danger, war and refugees. Not that reminders of the war aren’t omnipresent, in the way everything has been rebuilt (or sometimes, not rebuilt) and the flags flying everywhere, but it’s clear that the country has moved on. So many people that we spoke to seemed so pleased that more and more people are coming to visit their country, while they expressed their frustration at not being able to get visas for the EU or the US, or the expensive and lengthy process it takes to do so. Of course, I’m used to hearing about these unfair inequalities because of time spent in Africa, but it must be all the more annoying when people from your neighbouring countries are able to pop to the EU whenever they like (apparently, I haven’t checked that). You can’t change that (unless I have some really important readers I don’t know about), but you can perhaps help to change the country’s image problem a little, by visiting and telling all your friends about it.
If the question is should you spend an entire week in Kosovo… maybe not. Most visitors we met were only passing through. I’m glad we spent a week, because otherwise we wouldn’t have had time to do things like pop up to Mitrovica or spend an afternoon just sitting on a hill outside Prizren or a morning floating in a gigantic swimming pool, but those who prefer a more action-packed adventure might not agree.
Also: maybe don’t go at the end of June. SO HOT. And bring an Albanian dictionary unless you speak German.
In Part One, Ben and I visited Pristina and Prizren.
From Prizren, we went on to Gjakova, with a warning from our Prizren hosts that most visitors only spend a couple of hours in this city, stopping to check out the ‘Old Bazaar’ on their way to Peja. But, as we’d discovered, most visitors only spend three days or so in Kosovo, so we had time to kill. And Ben was withering in the heat and needed a night of air conditioning, so we booked a night in La Villa, on the outskirts of Gjakova. The hotel turned out to be in the middle of nowhere, a good half hour walk from the centre of town. It seemed we were the only guests for the night, but then a lot of people arrived the next morning for breakfast. Strangest of all, there was a pool – a pool which you were not allowed to swim in. I strongly believe that in 35+ degrees weather this is paramount to torture. It did have a good breakfast though.
Having dumped our stuff in the hotel room and found the Old Bazaar – which, as with many of the other sights in the post-war country, is not actually old at all, the Old one having been destroyed and re-built in the 2000s. The Bazaar is more like a scene from an old Western movie than the North African style market that I envision when I hear the word ‘bazaar’. It was definitely cute – little wooden fronted shops in streets lined with lanterns, but it didn’t take us long to wander up and down a few times. We unsuccessfully tried to get into the mosque, but the only time it was open was at prayer time, and despite my totally culturally appropriate attempt at covering my head, I don’t think it would have been appreciated if us infidels when wandering in then. We took some photos and cafe-hopped for a while, settling for a shady spot by the river since most of the cafes in the bazaar area were populated by chain-smokers, making sitting outside really quite unpleasant.
We tried to go to the museum, but discovered we’d just missed its opening hours (if it was ever open, you’ll have noticed that this was somewhat the theme of our holiday), and decided to go up the one hill in town for a good view (and maybe some cooler air). Wandering around Gjakova, which had been pretty much obliterated during the war, made me realise just how embarrassingly little I knew about the history of the conflict, so, we spent an hour or so educating ourselves courtesy of wikipedia before we got depressed and switched to playing hangman.
Peja aka Pec
We were looking forward to getting to Peja – described as a mountain town, with a few more sights to see. We stayed in Hostel Sarac, another little family-run place. It was really cute, with a nice outdoor space (including a hammock), making for a more social atmosphere than the other places we stayed, and (hurray!) fans in the dorms. We happened to arrive at the same time as an Australian girl, and together we set off in search of one of Peja’s most famous sights: the cheese market. The hostel owner gave us vague directions and told us we couldn’t miss it, just to follow the stream of people who would be heading that way. And so began a two hour trek around town, stopping to ask everyone we met and failing to make ourselves understood by most people. The few who did manage to understand the question sent us in the direction of the supermarket. We attempted asking young people who tended to speak some English – two school age boys who simultaneously pointed in different directions, and then a teen girl who replied “I didn’t know we HAD a cheese market!”. Eventually we decided we didn’t really want cheese anyway, and headed to get the bus for the monastery.
The monastery turned out to be half way back along the road to Gjakova, and then a walk along a road into the woods. When we got there, surprise, surprise – it was shut! But only for a little while, we were informed by the armed UNESCO guards who are there to protect the Serbian Orthodox monastery from marauding Muslim Albanians. They took our passports from us before we were allowed in, and we were also informed that one of us was not dressed appropriately. For once, that was Ben, not us women. Ben’s knees were deemed offensive, and so he was forced to pay a couple of euros for this delightful dressing-gown like garment:
No photos were allowed in the monastery, and I’m a rule-follower, so you’ll have to trust me when I say it was quite spectacular (and Google it if you don’t believe me).
The next day, we went for a walk in the forest. I’m going to pause here to do some free advertising for an app we discovered while in Kosovo: maps.me. It’s like Google maps (actually someone told me you can do the same thing with Google maps, but I have no idea how so I still think this is cooler), but you can use it without a data connection (having downloaded the map) because it works on GPS, and you can share routes and landmarks with others – so the hostel hosts had recorded various walks we could do. It was so useful for the rest of our trip, since we were guidebook-less.
The walk took us to another Serbian Christian building before heading out of town – the Patriarchate, which, while it sounds like it might the name of an “angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion” band (ten points if you spot the 1990s teen movie reference), is actually a nunnery. I KNOW, why is a nunnery named after the patriarchy? Well, because the whole concept of being a nun and marrying oneself to Jesus in lieu of finding a husband is a symbol of… no, ok, I’ve looked this up so you don’t have to – it became a nunnery after World War II. Anyway. It’s pretty. Probably prettier for those who are into Jesus, there were a couple of older women in there who were definitely having some kind of epiphany. But again photos weren’t allowed.
We then continued along the road out of town for our walk. I should explain at this point: I am not a hiker. Part of this is sheer laziness: I am really unfit; part of it is due to my dodgy knees/hips/back which are liable to hurt in any combination at any point. But mostly it’s just because I just don’t find nature very interesting. There. I said it. I can willingly walk around a city for hours, on nice paved (or sandy) streets, soaking up the atmosphere but I will get bored half an hour into any walk along a muddy path.
Basically, I’m more interested in people than trees. Which is why the most interesting part of the walk, mostly along a tarmac road into a valley, punctuated with a few people-based sights in the way of the via ferrata (which is just about my worst nightmare) and a zipline (which conversely didn’t look nearly scary enough to be fun), was a strange little hippy camp on a beach. This photo doesn’t nearly do it justice:
On our way back, we stopped at a little beach spot on the river, full of kids playing in the water and parents scoffing food. We did attempt to go in the water, but each lasted about 30 seconds because it was sooo cold – and I was pretty uncomfortable being in a bikini because ogling women even when fully clothed (I didn’t know what was appropriate so I wore maxi skirts all week) seems to be the done thing in Kosovo.
Ben, who most definitely is a hiker, had always been planning to take another path off the main road to go up another circuit that the hostel hosts had suggested. After lunch and drying off from the river, we found the bottom of the trail and a sign that said 40 mins. We assumed this meant that it would only be a 40 minute loop, so I decided to join, buoyed by the fact that my hips weren’t hurting since the last path had been along flat road. Error. The sign lied. Or, we can’t speak Albanian. Either way, we went up and up and up on a rough track which would have been fine if it hadn’t, as I keep reminding you, been over 30 degrees. We somehow managed to take a wrong turn and miss the view point as well, but we did reward ourselves (with cake, for me, and yoghurt, for my weirdo friend) at a hotel restaurant when we made it back to civilisation, which is in my opinion a better reward than a view anyway.
Pristina and the Slightly Bad Thing
We took the train, rather than the bus, back to Pristina the next day, for no real reason other than we had time on our hands (it takes longer than the bus) and Ben happens to particularly like trains. The third person we asked managed to show us how to buy tickets (it turned out we were mainly hampered by there not being anyone in the ticket booth the first time we tried) and we settled in to an ancient (decidedly not air-conditioned) train, with a little old lady asking us if we had babies yet. It was my turn to be too hot and grumpy (and I suspect dehydrated from running out of water on our walk the day before) and I was not a very happy bunny by the time we finally pulled into Pristina – although perhaps somewhat happier than the screaming baby that had been next to us for most of the journey.
Ok. I’ve painted a lovely picture of Kosovo so far and you’re convinced you should definitely go there on your holidays, right?
Well, then, as we pull back into Pristina on the slow train I think it’s time to tell you about that Slightly Bad Thing that happened on our first evening. You’ll remember that we had been in the country for all of two hours by this point, and I left the story with us walking back towards our hostel from the Bill Clinton statue, discussing what a ‘nice’ feel the city had to it, and how quiet it was, being the last day of Ramadan. An ambulance drove past us, which we remember because we commented on how slow it was going – the windows weren’t blacked out so we could actually see the paramedics working on someone in the back.
Talk turned to other things for a few moments, until we made it back to the main street. A crowd had gathered, all facing the same way, towards a bar on a corner with outside seating. Crowds make me anxious, particularly unexplained crowds, so my sense of danger kicked in.
‘What’s going on here then?’
‘Oh there’s police tape’
It was blood. Lots and lots of blood. More blood than I have ever seen not-in-a-hospital TV show (and then I hide behind cushions). We scarpered past the crowd and must have been looking more than a little concerned because a (strangely) chuckling young man approached us, and casually said, ‘guys in this country are like… terrorists, you know?’
Oh dear. Had all my insisting that Kosovo was a perfectly safe destination for travel these days been all wrong (I’m sure I Googled it? I must have Googled it. Right?)? The young man went on to explain, in somewhat broken English that we clarified with the man who worked in the hostel when we got back. It turns out that there are customary laws in the mountainous areas of Kosovo where blood feuds – you killed my sister so I have permission to kill you, and that should be the end of it, but obviously it won’t be because your brother will then kill me then my father will kill… etc – are still a thing. The term had popped up in my research (I totally Googled it.) before travelling, but I got the impression that it was either an old tradition that had died out, or a weird custom between a couple of mafia-like families in the mountain villages. Not that we would walk past a murder (I don’t know if the guy died but there was a LOT of blood..) scene in the middle of Pristina! Random man on the street told us that one family that has lost 500 boys – I have no idea if that’s accurate. We were assured that such things rarely happen in Pristina, though, so don’t let our unfortunately timed walk put you off visiting. Or at least make rational decisions with the knowledge that 11 people died from knife crime in a 16 day period in London earlier this year
So being back in Pristina was good for us to get a better impression – and actually, I’m going to have to make that a third post because this is getting so long – but, spoiler alert: no stabbings or other violent crimes were witnessed the second time around.
Part Three coming soon! Here’s something even creepier to take your mind off the blood feud.
What do you think of when you hear the word Kosovo?
There’s probably a good chance that you thought of war and refugees, especially if you’re a similar age to me, making the late 90s conflict one of the first that you might remember being aware of.
You probably didn’t think of a holiday destination.
Neither did I, to be honest, but I had one page left in my passport to be stamped and not much money, it was late June (so too hot for Morocco), and my friend/travel buddy Ben only had one week free so we couldn’t go too far afield. And it turns out, Wizz Air fly direct to Pristina from Luton.
Before I get to Kosovo, let me tell you that Luton airport is now in my Top Three Worst Airports – which you might not think is a very serious allegation but remember that in 2008 I spent nine hours stuck in the airport in Tripoli, Libya, so you should believe me when I say Luton airport is bad.
The first thing we noticed on flying into Kosovo was how green and hilly it was. And that’s coming from a Scot.
We stayed in Hostel Han in the centre of Pristina. I don’t know whether hostel standards in general have improved in the better part of a decade since I last stayed in one, or whether this was exceptional, but honestly, it was the cleanest hostel I have ever set foot in. It was about 8 by the time we checked in, and still light, so we headed straight back out to explore. The hostel was situated just off the main boulevard, which has a mediterranean feel to it with all the outdoor seating so we wandered along there and then realised we weren’t too far from the Bill Clinton statue we had sped past in the taxi. Every town we visited had a Bill Clinton street, and there were Tony Blair roads and George Bush avenues as well – pretty strange to see considering the reputation of the latter two warmongers former leaders in the UK.
Heading back to town, a slightly bad thing happened. I’m not going to tell you about that now because it will cloud your judgement. I’ll put it at the end. After the Slightly Bad Thing, we went for dinner. When we picked up the menu, we were shocked at the prices. Everything is SO CHEAP. A meal is 2-3 euros, and a large (600ml) beer is the same again. I chose the vegetarian option, which turned out to be a large bowl of super salty baked beans. I learned my lesson and resigned to carnivorism for the rest of the trip.
It was Eid the next day. We chatted with the guy working in the hostel – a super friendly archaeology student – over breakfast about religion in Kosovo, learning that most people identify as Muslim but aren’t really practicing. We planned to leave Pristina straight away, as we were coming back to explore before our return flight, and he assured us the buses would be running as usual – in hindsight we should have doubted this when he had to share his own muesli with us because all the bakeries were shut. In fact when we arrived at the bus station, we were told that there wasn’t a bus to our destination for some four hours. This is also when we discovered that most people in Kosovo don’t speak any of the languages that we speak (only 3.5 and some odd bits between us, none of them related to Albanian. Thankfully, an American girl (Peace Corps, I’m guessing…) took pity on us and explained we could ask one of the buses going to Tirana to stop in Prizren for us, and that is exactly what we did (with the help of an Albanian girl who translated for the driver), setting off 20 minutes later. We think the bus actually made a detour into the city for us and two others who had the same predicament, and it still only charged us 5 euros each.
In Prizren, we stayed in Driza’s House, a little family run hostel in the very centre of the town with a teeny tiny little kitten (that I’m definitely allergic to, but bless the hosts, they scooped him up whenever he tried to come near me). We arrived mid-afternoon and it was hot. And we were hungry. Every restaurant was shut because of Eid, but we eventually found a cafe to perch in. Kosovo is famed – well, I’m not exactly sure with what audience, but it claims to be famed – for offering the world’s best macchiatos. I can’t vouch for this, because although I drank a few, I’ve never drunk a macchiato in any other country. And I have terrible coffee tastes (either cheap black filter coffee from Pret, or a latte with enough sugary syrup to disguise the taste of milk)
Prizren livened up later in the afternoon. The host – the younger of two brothers who run the hostel that used to be their family home – invited us to join him (and his girlfriend and her friend) at an Eid party. The party turned out to be an open air club in the shadow of the mosque. Interestingly, our host and it seemed many of the others weren’t drinking beer. Not because of their Muslim faith, but because it was Eid and apparently that means that they shouldn’t drink until midnight. I’m all for the adaptation of religious holidays. It could have be fun… if we had been ten years younger. We escaped and went for a wander around the garden of the mosque (which, it turned out, had some gift shops and a cafe selling what looked suspiciously like beer…) and a late dinner.
The next day we attempted to see the sights of Prizren. These include the mosque (shut, although we managed to poke our (covered) heads in later on), the church (the priest is in Greece for an unspecified length of time), and an old (sort of, it was rebuilt) stone bridge (see photo below). A quick whizz around an ethnographic museum which consisted of one building with some traditional outfits with no explanations whatsoever, and another full of photos of men. Actually, we found the most interesting thing in the museum to be how, instead of getting ‘female’ mannequins for the women’s outfits, they had just pulled the short-haired heads of some ‘male’ ones, meaning the few representations of women that were to be found in the museum were all headless. Great.
It was hot, and we wanted to get out of the city a little. Our hostel hosts had told us there would be a bus every half an hour or so to what we thought was a village in the mountains (but turned out just to be a strange little holiday spot). It turned out, when we got to the spot to catch the bus, that there were no buses. Are you getting déjà vu yet? This time we gave in and got a taxi for the half hour journey, which cost us a princely sum (18 euros, if I remember correctly). The temperature got better as soon as we were a bit higher, and we were treated to a good chat with the driver. By which I mean Ben had a chat with the driver in broken German (Ben’s, the driver’s was better), while I demanded translation. It turns out German (or indeed Norwegian, which is what Ben actually speaks) is a much more useful language in Kosovo than English (or French. Or, you know, Wolof.). We ended up in on a Sound of Music-esque hilltop and had a very wholesome afternoon with our books.
The trouble started when it was time to get back to town. We asked a man in a restaurant when the next bus was, only to hear it was about two hours later (yes, again). We asked some men… selling things or loitering… who offered to drive us back down for a ridiculous amount, and so decided to hitch hike. We’d heard positive things about how easy it is to hitch a ride in Kosovo, but it turns out we’re not very good at it. After a good 15 minutes of standing on the wrong side of the road (it was logical, we could see around the corner), a shopkeeper took pity on us and gave us some cardboard to write a sign. It also may have helped that Ben – tall white man – then left me – lone young-ish female – at the side of the road while he popped in to buy some water, because the very next car (with two middle aged men in it) stopped. Ben came running out and they seemed like they might drive off, but the nice man from the shop managed to persuade them to take us after all. They spoke very little English, but the driver called his daughter who lives in Bradford to tell us they would drop us off before the main town (but they must have changed their minds, because we ended up right next to our hostel)!
The other thing to see in Prizren is the ruins of an old castle, or, more interestingly, the view from the castle at the top of a very steep hill. We headed up for sunset and I made Ben partake in a windswept photoshoot.
So many minarets
Part 2, featuring Gjakova, Peja, and Pristina (again) coming soon (although let’s be real it took me two months to write this part)
I had a deadline recently. I get very productive when I have a deadline.
Some of the things I got done when I really should have been working were legit productive:
• I fixed that broken washing machine I mentioned – there’s nothing quite as empowering as diagnosing a washing machine fault, ordering a part, taking the motor apart and replacing said part, and somehow managing to put it all back together with only minor injuries in the process. Saved myself a few hundred quid too, for now at least.
• I finally painted my hall – it’s cream, but of course I couldn’t resist a purple feature wall. Technically, it’s ‘Ivory Lace’, ‘White Cotton’ on the ceiling, with a touch of ‘Gentle Lavender’ – in other words, the contents of an old lady’s underwear drawer.
• I applied for a short term consultancy job (although it appears I haven’t got it, because I haven’t heard anything back, it was a useful exercise to make myself realise how little I know about that world)
• I invigilated a bunch of exams (financially productive, certainly nothing else).
Others were fun and necessary for my sanity:
• I had a lovely weekend in Paris with my three favourite coworkers from my last ‘real’ job. We shunned most of the tourist attractions for wine in the sunshine and photoshoots.
• I also almost immediately afterwards made an impromptu trip home to Scotland for a few days – because our family dog has had ten, yes, TEN puppies. I hadn’t been planning to go and see them because I already had another trip booked for my dad’s birthday four weeks later, and you know, I’m not really a dog person. But don’t assume I’m a cat person – they’re the spawn of the devil. I much prefer rodents. So, my when my dad emailed me the following note with the subject line “Please come and see puppies while they look like rats”, I couldn’t resist a little extra procrastination!
And he was right. They did start life looking very much like adorable little rats.
For those who prefer their dogs to look like dogs, six weeks later and they look like this (photo stolen from my sister (that’s what sisters are for) – you can see a load more on Instagram: maisiesbabies ):
• I booked flights to a slightly unconventional holiday destination – details to follow.
But the rest were possibly signs of my mental state:
• I played far too much of a Candy Crush-esque game that wasn’t even fun and which I have no deleted from my life because I can’t be trusted. I have a ridiculously addictive personality. This is why I’ve never touched drugs!
• I diagnosed myself with all sorts of disorders, but settled on Vitamin B12 deficiency-induced anaemia. I would be lying if I didn’t decide on that diagnosis because it essentially means I need to eat more cheese.
• I decided where my future children will go to school. Now, not only do I not have children, I do not have anything that might even remotely resemble a future baby daddy. But there was an article about the pollution levels outside primary schools in London and one thing led to another and now I know that funny shaped building I can see from my living room window is in fact a primary school, and one with good ratings, too.
Somehow, despite my best self-sabotaging efforts, I made it through. As a result, I’m now finally a fully-fledged PhD student (as opposed to technically being a MPhil student, which is what I have been for the first year of the programme). I got an email earlier confirming this and giving me an ultimate deadline for the submission of my thesis – terrifying. God knows what depths my procrastination will sink to when I’m writing that beast.
I’ve been wondering why I’m not feeling the election fatigue that everyone has been talking about since May made her announcement this week. Then I realised I haven’t been in the country for the run up to a general election since 2005, that is, never since I have been old enough to vote.
In 2015, I was in Senegal. In 2010, I was living in France, although I was visiting uni friends in Aberystwyth on the day of the actual vote – we kept the coverage on overnight and woke up periodically to swear at the screen, and Nick Clegg snuggling up to David Cameron the next morning was the worst hangover we could imagine. Even in Scottish parliamentary elections, the last time I was eligible to vote was in 2007. So, although I’ve been of voting age for over a decade, very rarely have I exercised that right in person (of course I have voted by post or proxy whenever able!). I’m rather excited.
Although it pains me to say it out loud, I agree with most of the non-delusional world that a Tory majority is a foregone conclusion for this particular election, and in my own constituency in London anything except a Labour victory would be a massive shock to everyone. The latter means, in reality, that my vote is almost irrelevant, but I’m in the strange position of being really quite pleased about this fact. My loyalties – to the extent to which I believe in party politics which is not very much at all – lie with the SNP, naturally. But unfortunately (despite my attempts to persuade them through social media to run me as a candidate) the SNP isn’t on the ballot paper in Lewisham. This leaves me with a quandary.
If there was any chance of a Conservative win, I would feel obligated to fall in line with ‘progressive’ (… shall we talk about my dislike of that word another day?) voters across the country. I would feel like I had to vote for Labour just in case – I certainly wouldn’t want to have indirectly contributed to a Tory win, after all. But I am not and have never been a Labour voter. My own political awakening probably happened around the time of the war in Iraq (I was 15 in 2003), and I am still holding a grudge against the party. Add to that the way they conducted the Better Together campaign against Scottish independence – belittling Scotland through a negative campaign which brought to light just how little difference there is between Labour and the Tories – and I am not likely to vote willingly for Labour any time soon. With Corbyn in charge, I could be slightly more tempted, but only if I thought for a second that the attractive policies he talks about would ever be supported in parliament by his own party, never mind those on opposite benches. If I found myself in a constituency where tactical voters are more likely to turn to the Lib Dems, I would probably feel even more ill at east, having not forgiven them for 2010 (when I am pleased to say I did NOT vote for them, but only because of some problem with my proxy vote application). With Farron failing to rule out another coalition with the Conservatives, I don’t think I could trust them with my vote.
As it stands, the Labour majority in my constituency (Heidi Alexander MP got more than 55% of the vote last time around, trailed by the Conservative candidate with a difference of more than 14,000 votes) is so large that I feel free to vote for whoever I like! The question is, with the SNP off the table and Labour and the Lib Dems both ruled out, who on earth is that? Looking at the ballot for the constituency in the last election, alternatives were, in order of their final tallies, UKIP (I don’t think I need to provide my thoughts on that option, but for clarification, they did actually do substantially better than the Lib Dems last time around, with 9% of the vote compared to 5.7%), the Green Party, People Before Profit, and the Christian Peoples Alliance.
Regarding the latter, the lack of apostrophe in their name is annoying me almost as much as their stance on (by which I mean, against, of course) equal marriage, so I think we can safely say I won’t be supporting them. I am left, then, with a choice of the Greens or People Before Profit. The Greens last year ran a candidate named Störm – yes, with an umlaut – who appears to no longer belong to the party, and People Before Profit are apparently a Lewisham-based party who got a grand total of 390 votes. Further research required on their stance on, well, everything.
Neither of these choices are inspiring much passion from me. I suppose I must have become one of those ‘Undecided Voters’ I’ve always heard about and never had much sympathy for. For the first time, my vote is for the taking and I am open to be convinced. I’m almost excited to see whether it will be the Green party, this tiny People Before Profit party, or any other outliers that pop up (I wonder if the Women’s Equality Party will be running?) that finally win me over.
While I wait to be wooed, however, I would like to say thank you, fellow voters of Lewisham East, for voting for Labour so that I don’t have to.
I am having a crisis. It was my birthday this weekend, a day which serves mainly to remind me of the ticking of my biological clock. Does that analogy show my age? Perhaps I should say the slow but steady depletion of my biological battery. In either case, this weekend I began the last year of my twenties and entered my annual and ever increasing panic about the direction of my life, by which I mean my significant lack of a significant other and therefore of plans to make babies but also the wrinkles that I’m spotting around my eyes and the way my back hurts when I stand up for too long.
My friends, as they are duty-bound to do, inform me I am being ridiculous. Don’t be silly. You own a flat! You’re doing a PhD! Freezing your eggs is cheapest in Spain, FYI. Some remind me how much I’ve done, which is particularly ineffective because I haven’t done anything very much recently, and all those Things That I Have Done feel like an awfully long time ago. I am now, as I sincerely regret calculating, nearer my 40th birthday than my 18th and Those Things That I Have Done are now stories that I need to write down before my aging brain forgets the details.
And so, in the interests of remaining interesting, the blogging restarts.
As I write this, I have been 29, if we are working from the time that I was born, for a grand total of 47 hours and 45 minutes. I spent the evening of my birthday in my living room with a small group of friends: some new (university) friends and my flatmate, an old (Senegal) friend and an even older (school) friend. We chatted and laughed and didn’t drink very much because we’re all far too busy to be hungover – if it wasn’t for the pic’n’mix among the snacks it might have almost been as sophisticated as the surprise brunch earlier in the day. The next day, a quick whizz around an overcrowded museum reminded my biological urges that children are not all darling angels. Then, in an effort to feel young, I dawned a crochet dress with a cut out midriff, put on heels for the first time in forever, and headed to Brixton for a night of Kizomba dancing. I am not a big kizomba fan – it’s too close, there are too many rules, there is only (it seems to my ears) one rhythm that varies only in tempo, and, most importantly, I’m bad at it – but a rather handsome man took it upon himself to teach me how to dance. Dancing makes me feel ten years younger. At least until the lights came on and I caught a glimpse of my wrinkles in the mirror, until we (that’s me and my friend, NOT me and the handsome dancer, for the sake of clarification) limped our blistered feet and hair slightly damp with random men’s sweat into bed at 4:45 am.
I would say I have barely left the couch today, and I really haven’t left the house or even bothered to clean, but actually I’m feeling rather accomplished. Despite my four hours’ sleep I have diagnosed my washing machine that I cursed yesterday by stating within earshot that I would replace it when it broke. I debated getting a new one when it decided to stop functioning within an hour of that statement, then watched multiple YouTube videos and stubbornly decided it may be repairable. I could get a man in to fix it. Or I could pull the washing machine out and start dissecting it in the middle of the kitchen until I am thwarted by not owning the tool I need to take the motor out.
In my more adventurous days I did a lot of travelling, plenty of it solo. This is strange to a lot of people. I think either you are a Travelling By Yourself person, or, you are not. Don’t you get lonely, lots of people have asked me, what do you do in the evenings (these people know I’m not the type to make insta-friends with whichever other traveller happens to be in the same hostel, at least not often)? The answer is, I did a lot of reading, and a lot of writing. How many novels have I started scribbling sitting on beaches in exotic places? I don’t even know what happened to them. Abandoned when I get home and life makes me think about real life instead of my own creations, I suppose. But I wrote about real life too. Descriptions of what was going on around me. What I could see and hear and smell and – since waiting for food is the perfect, slightly awkward situation which can be improved with a notebook and a pen – taste. Now I am more settled – all be it settled into a hyper-transient, often downright surreal Expat Life – it has been a long time since I have sat down by myself with nothing to do but watch the world go by and take notes. And I hadn’t realised I miss it.
Last month I went to The Gambia to do some work with our office there. It was not my first time there, and it’s certainly not my favourite place, so I had nothing on my post-work agenda other than Avoid The Tourists and The Touts. So this is what happened…
I’m on mission (that’s charity speak for on a work trip, possibly specific to Senegal, West Africa, or Francophone countries, I’m not sure) in Kololi, The Gambia. Having been deposited in a Would Have Been Fancy Once Upon a Time hotel at the bottom of a highly suspicious dirt track (next to, but not in sight of the beach), I have ventured out for food (the hotel restaurant is shut for the season). My options consisted of taking the Highly Suspicious Dirt Track that leads to Tourist Central (aka the Senegambia Strip) or a little snack bar opposite the hotel entrance. I chose option two.
From where I am currently sitting, I can see no less than three England flags, not including the row of St George’s Cross bunting. The middle-age Englishman who presumably owns the place is complaining loudly about ‘these people’ – in his defence I’m not entirely sure whether he’s referring to tourists or to Gambians and, to give him the benefit of the doubt, it’s not entirely impossible that he’s talking about a more specific group of people – and how long it’s taking for a pizza to be delivered to his own restaurant. Behind me is another old white man accompanied by a far too young Gambian girl and I wonder if the Adele track loudly crooning ‘she… she’s half your age’ is making him uncomfortable. In another comer, there are a couple of dreadlocked men smoking, and the waiter is rushing about trying to change the gas, which does not bode well for my dinner. There is a mural – terribly painted – on the wall featuring a scantily clad African girl serving a table of toubabs. Across the road (if we can really call it a road) there are four prospective taxi-drivers all soliciting for customers, and just one taxi. And, peculiarly, one tuk-tuk.
The owner is watching me scribbling away – I think he thinks I am reviewing his shack. I suppose I kind of am.
Inevitably one of the dreadlocked men starts talking to me – harmlessly, and I don’t mind a little oh-you-LIVE-in-Africa chat. Of course this turns into a Wolof test, which only goes to show how Dakarois my Wolof is. Gambians seem to use far fewer abbreviations – ‘Naka nga def’ instead of ‘nanga def’,‘naka nga tudd’ instead of ‘nootudd‘ – which my very far from fluent ears can’t process fast enough, and of course it’s peppered with English instead of French. The waiter (named Mbaye, which just so happens to be my Senegalese surname – I know this because my new friend has been correcting the English owner on his pronunciation) has just presented me with a basket containing HP sauce and salad cream (along with a plethora of other condiments), and although I’m eating spaghetti, I’m almost tempted to add them because of their sheer Britishness.
Later in the evening, my new friend introduces me to a Scottish man staying in the same hotel! He runs a small charity “sponsoring children, some education stuff”. He tells me about his minister friend in my home town (which church? oh it’s just run out of a community centre…) and sure enough a quick google later reveals an evangelical project sending Muslim kids to Christian schools in order to provide them with the light of the gospel. I’m saying nothing. Still, nice chap. I suppose most missionary types are, on the surface.
My second dinner excursion takes me further afield. I was accompanied up the Highly Suspicious Dirt Track by a Marginally Less Suspicious Taxi-driver with no taxi (I stifled a laugh when he told me his name is Byron). l ventured as far as the next street, also known as the Senegambia Strip. It’s the Kao San Road of West Africa. Bar after bar interspersed with strip clubs and tour agencies. It is full of Mancunians and sex tourists and Mancunian sex tourists. And men trying to get your attention from every possible angle I retreat around the corner to the most local looking place in sight.
Day Three and I have had quite enough of the hassle that is everywhere around here. I could never live here. Today’s chaperone up the Highly Suspicious Dirt Track was much more unwelcome. And then my resolve slipped (it’s been a Very Long Day) and I let him half-lead me to his friend’s restaurant since I was going that direction anyway, and then of course he wanted a reward for leading me to ‘the best’ shack on a street of restaurant shacks. Or he wanted to sit and eat with me while bombarding me with more cliché comments (“black, white, we’re all people, man”, “this is the smiling coast of Africa!”). I was having none of it (which, of course, means I’m a racist) and escaped to another identical shack across the road, where I was instantly pounced on for a discussion about my religion by the Nigerian manager – “Hi, my name is whateverhisnamewas and I am a believer”. Great.
There are mosquitoes biting my toes. There is something strange about there being so many mosquitoes when it’s so cold. On the plus side, my dinner is costing a total of £1.60.
I didn’t write anything on Day Four, mainly because work was utterly horrid and I was in a dreadful mood, so I embraced the tourist strip for the promise of cold beer and the best pizza I’ve ever had in Africa (no but really), accompanied by a good book. I felt a little better after that and much better after a work-related rant directed at the unsuspecting Scottish missionary type who I crossed paths with on the way back to the hotel.
So there we have it. (Another) four nights in The Gambia was quite enough for me, enough that I even ran out of things to write about, and I was happy to be home in Dakar when my flight landed (strangely, half an hour before it was scheduled to take off, making me glad to be one of those people that gets to airports three hours early). Seriously though – that pizza might merit a trip back.
2018 edit: I did hunt out that pizza when I ended up back here on a visa run!