The fall and recovery of Covid-19 times in Iceland, summarised so far

The rise of a pandemic in Iceland was awfully creepy, watching the city of Reykjavik first, then the whole country, spiral into one big ghost town. We never made it to complete lockdown, but as the number of cases ticked higher and higher, our voice of authority Víðir pushed us off the streets and into our homes. The first public hit was March 15, when a gathering ban was put on meetings of 100 people or more. This affected some events and some businesses, but people took it quite light heartedly. Then, only a week later, March 22 saw the gathering ban crash down to 20 (except for basic needs like grocery shopping), which affected everyone. The day to day lives of people, especially with a 2m social distancing rule, was taught, and learned, but every day we realised more ways in which this could affect us. We couldn’t´t get our hair cut. We couldn’t´t go to the bank without an appointment. There were no bars or pubs left open. The pools had shut. Hotels were deserted. Flights were cancelled, and even the airport became empty.

the abnormally empty streets of Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur in downtown Reykjavik

The new cases of Covid-19 spread faster than people were recovering, and at our highest rate of infection just before easter, around 1600 people had been affected. But, the pandemic then began to fall, with Icelander´s having the quietest, loneliest easter weekend imaginable, and a full 6 weeks later, the total number of people infected with Covid stands only at 1806. Today the numbers show only 10 deaths, with a mere 2 active cases left. The statistics and numbers on covid.is website are worth checking out for more facts and stats and to keep up with the rest of Iceland´s recovery news.

quiet and calm times like this means everyone is home looking for a new hobby. Seakayaking was mine, what about yours?

After the first week of April, we were still holding our breath. The numbers were going down but there were still new cases every day. It wasn’t´t until May 4th that we saw the first real light at the end of the tunnel shine, and at midnight that day the gathering ban was increased to 50 people and salons and some spas could reopen. Many people went for a manicure or to meet their chiropractor, and lots of sanitiser and latex was still floating around. At midnight on May 18th, the public pools reopened, and lines of people (with 2m distance between each other) waited outside thru the night to get in for an overdue soak. The pools are restricted to 50% capacity until tomorrow, and then 75% capacity from June 1 until June 15 when they can open at 100% capacity. June 15th will also be the day tourists may begin trickling in, with a promised test-on-arrival system put into place to replace the mandatory 2 week quarantine currently in place for all new arrivals to Iceland.

On May 25, the gathering ban was increased to 200 people and public gyms and bars could finally reopen. The 2m social distancing rule has become a guideline instead, and people are asked to follow it if they want, but restaurants and bars are not expected to accommodate the rule for everyone. With 200 person events now allowed, there seems to be a funeral in every church, and some postponed baptisms, birthday parties and weddings are beginning to fill up the empty venues.

the height of covid lockdown was a perfect time to get out to the quiet countryside. Here is Hofsós in perfect peace and tranquility.

Though Covid is not over, Reykjavik feels a bit like Covid never happened. It´s hard to hear all the struggles others around the world are still in, and watching the number of cases still grow some places. Even in Iceland we had 1 Covid-case confirmed only two days ago, and though it wasn´t announced on the radio every hour like it used to be, we are all still aware. Icelander´s are tough, and being resilient means we are still careful, but its nice to start being able to touch and hug people again. Not everyone is there yet, but things have almost returned to normal in my day to day life. And what impeccable timing – I believe I speak for all locals when I say we are so ready for summer, especially a whole summer in Iceland without tour guiding and no tourist traffic in all our favourite places!

How many countries are there in the world?

From lowest count to highest, here is the range of differing opinions on what makes a country a country, and more importantly, what counts as a ´real´country.

Although the UN is often the default count for people to believe, its not that clear what their official number is. I´ve seen both 193 and 195, since Taiwan and the Vatican have some strange non-member observer status. Then there´s Kosovo, which over a hundred of those member states recognize, but not the UN body. UNESCO, a branch of the UN, has a member list of 195, including Palestine but excluding the Holy See and Taiwan from the UN list, plus 11 associate members.

This pushes the count up to 206, which the National Olympic Committee also has, but they no longer recognise Curacao, Gibraltar, the Faroe Islands, Macau or New Caledonia. Though they used to be part of the International Olympic Committee, they now have to compete through their parent nations (Netherlands, the UK, Denmark, China, France) though the Faroes and Macao are allowed to athletes as their own in the Paralympics.

FIFA says there are 211 registered football teams in the world from different countries (the UK is split into its 4 countries), excluding some UN countries, since not every country in the world has a national men´s football team (ie. Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Monaco, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Vatican).

Couchsurfing has over 230 countries, and claims to have a registered host in every country in the world. With 2 million users, this is definitely possible, but the truth is its hard to find hosts in countries where the site is illegal, like Iran, where there is only one host, like in Wallis & Futuna, or where the site is nonexistent, like in North Korea.

The highest count is over 300. The Centenary Club, an elite members only group of travelers, counts 327 countries and territories.

If you ask me, the definition of a country isn´t rocket science. If you pass a border or showed a passport, had to apply for a visa, or use a totally different currency and maybe a new language, then you´re probably in a different country. I definitely stand by the fact that every time I went to Greenland, I was not in Denmark, and French Guyana is nothing like France except for the euro currency. I actually think its strangest that everyone can agree to call the Holy See a separate country, but others have more problems with territories and their status. I’m somewhere in the middle, with about 245 countries on my horizon, of which 25 I have left to visit.

What lockdown & social distancing has taught me

It´s been fascinating to watch time really slow down, the world pass by in slow motion, and winter turn into summer virtually overnight. In Iceland, the first day of summer was officially last week, and the Arctic Turns are back to prove it. They migrate all the way from Antarctica every year, the longest migratory pattern of any bird, and are here to breed. The grass turned green so quickly I think the naked eye could actually see the new blades growing the first time the sun shone with heat.

I´ve been home more nights these last 6 weeks than I have ever been (in total) in my own apartment. It has taught me how to nest, and that I like nesting, and I´m not such a bad homebody. I´ve been cleaning, decorating and burrowing deeper into my own home than I´ve ever done, anywhere. Last time I remember doing anything like this was for my first year of collage in a 9sq.m dorm room to try and look cool to the others in my dormatory. I sometimes get bored at home alone, so I end up doing things I can´t imagine I actually thought of doing. One day I turned my shower on hot enough to turn the whole bathroom into a steam room (the public pools have all been closed in Iceland for way too long). Another day I scratched mold of my window sills. I set up fairy lights by my desk and added dirt to my cactus flower pots. Its

I finished a book I´ve been carrying in my backpack for more than 2 years, only to learn that the Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck is not an uplifting author to read in times of depression. I paint my toes a different colour each week, and consider painting my fingernails to match but never did. I´ve been practicing the piano, and finally learned how to freestyle on a blues scale. I tuned two friends pianos, and realised its actually not that hard or laboursome to tune your own piano. I watched a movie, from a dvd, turning my tv and dvd player on for the first time ever. I watched 4 more dvd´s since, and one of those movie nights turned into a sleep-over pyjama party with 4 other friends from the neighbourhood.

One of the stupider things I learned was not to buy a scratch world map after traveling to more than 200 countries. I actually sustained an injury on my thumb trying to scratch most of the map away and had to spread it out over 5 days, and never finished Russia or Antarctica. I guess its a good thing… to have somethings left to do in unemployment. Let me know if anyone needs a virtual tour guide or travel writer this summer, I´m available! I´m also accepting donations to fund a 300 hr yoga teacher training online course if people just want to pay me to not work 😉

Stay healthy and happy out there, lots of peace and love to you all.

Stranger things have happened

Well, more than a month later, self-quarantine and gathering bans have just become normal life. Everyday, we avoid each other with a mandatory 2m social distancing rule, and even outdoors, its hard to comply. Spring is in the air, and with every mediocre-day, the weather seems better and better to get out of the house and jump around.

My day-to-day life went from self-isolation to group isolation, where I´ve managed to build a covid-safe family of about 7 people I trust to meet. We never hug, don´t get to shake hands, and simply blow each other kisses from 2 m away. But at least we get to meet, see a familiar face, socialise, talk, have human (emotional) contact that isn´t thru a screen. One of the few people I’ve accidentally come closer than 2m to was the prime minister Katrin Jakobs, when I nearly crashed into her on my bike.

lonely, but still outside

I´ve done stranger things this last month. I´ve baked banana cake, 4 times, 4 different ways. I made apple crumble, from scratch, used a waffle maker for the first time, and hand rolled (with a wine bottle) and fried vegan roti bread. Before this month, I don´t think I´ve ever handled flour more than once a year, or decade. I was never a baker. But here I am. I also birdwatched today. I make fun of bird-watchers.

bird-watching from the dedicated birdwatchers shed over Bakkatjorn

I bike, run, hike or yoga everyday, sometimes all of the above, but I´m still not losing an ounze. It seems impossible to ever balance out the indoor, eating time with anything outside, especially when it only stopped snowing or freezing when Easter arrived. The pond in downtown Reykjavik only de-thawed on fully this weekend, since December. For the first time in my living history, Reykjavik sold out of both tulips and easter eggs before Easter Sunday, so two of my favourite things about Easter will have to wait til 2021.

easter dinner

I squatted an empty boutique hotel with 3 covid-family friends near Thingvellir, and one night turned into 3 and even then, we could have stayed. The hotel won´t open again til July, as predictions stand today, so I´m still wondering if I shouldn´t just move into their spa, or Northern Lights bar.

the view over Nesjavellir

I haven´t started my car in weeks because the batter doesnt last so long in the cold, but I´m scared to get it jumpstarted and then drive away and never come back. I feel like a bird that cant only not fly, but I´ve fallen from the branches and I´m buried at the roots, with no chance to travel or work again in the near future. My life, until now, has been a constant pendulum between travel or tour guiding, and neither are an option… for now. But, this summer in Iceland, what better place to be stuck than at home, digging into the roots, and having free time to explore Iceland. And just imagine how it will feel without the millions of tourists? It´s going to feel like one big playground in our backyard.

Fréttablaðið Fólk: my interview in Iceland´s biggest newspaper

Enjoy a rough translation of this Icelandic article journalist Starri Freyr Jónsson wrote about me in this weekend´s edition of Fréttablaðið. If you understand Icelandic, you can just read the original article in the picture below!

Fólk, Fréttablaðið. Helgablaðið laugardagur 5. ágúst 2017

Finds Happiness in the small things

When Katrin was 22 years old, she decided to travel to 200 countries before she turned 20. Today she is just over 30, and 208 countries are already on her list. Future travels include remote islands in the Pacific Ocean, Central Asia and middle Africa.

There are definitely few, if any, Icelanders who have traveled as much as Katrín Sif Einarsdóttir. At only 22 years old, she set the goal of traveling to 200 countries before she became thirty. Today she´s just over thirty and the country count has reached 208; according to her countdown, which has perhaps more countries than people think exist, also considers countries that are not defined as an independent states, for example places like Greenland, Scotland, the Faroe Islands and Taiwan.

Katrín Sif was born in Iceland but grew up in Canada. “I started traveling alone when I was 18, but had a very outdoorsy life as a child and a teenager. Until age 21, I traveled mostly to South America and Asia. When I was 19, I lived for a four-month period on a ship sailing around the world. The trip began in Mexico, and we sailed across the Pacific Ocean through Asia and Africa, then to Europe and across the Atlantic to Florida. ”

Despite extensive travel, Katrín Sif has completed a double BA degree in philosophy and French, and has completed two master’s degrees; one MSc in environmental science and natural resource management, and an MA in Icelandic history. “In between, I have worked in restaurants, both at home and abroad, and worked with writing and as an editor during and between travels. I still see myself most as a cowgirl and work as a tourguide during the summer time in the highlands of Iceland, and sometimes work as a shepherd in the autumn in the east and north. ”

Thankful for a safe home

This summer she went to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan where she, among other things, completed an eight-day horseback riding trip in Kyrgyzstan. “This fall I want to travel across Europe and learn about wine production. Later in winter, I’m headed for some of the Pacific islands that are extremely difficult to travel to, for example Wallis and Futuna plus Tokelau. However, next year, I would like to spend a few months in central and northern Africa and learn some Arabic. I would also love to travel to Central Asia and to some former Soviet Union republic and learn a little Russian. ”

After all the years and the number of countries it is difficult for her to point out some of the destinations that stand out. “However, in 2016, I visited North Korea and Afghanistan, which were both astonishing. It was very safe to travel in North Korea, the country was clean and offered more exciting places than I expected. Of course, I always felt like it was being watched or followed by my shadow of a guide, so I never knew if I was really experiencing North Korea or something staged. Afghanistan is a very beautiful country where the countrymen are very friendly and hospitable. Like their neighbors in Pakistan, terrorism and war have made it very stressful to travel in these areas. In such circumstances, I am grateful for the peace and security that prevails in Iceland. ”

Learned a lot on the way

After traveling for more than half of her life, Katrín Sif has learned a lot about how people act and interact. “I’ve learned to be very tolerant, patient and understanding as I get to know other languages, religions and different cultures. I have also learned to see happiness in the small things and to live a simple life with an 8 kg backpack for a large part of the year. This lifestyle has taught me to be happy with what I have at each time in each place. However, no matter how much I travel, I always find new and new exciting destinations to keep wanting more. ”

Even while traveling, she sometimes gets home sick. “I love Iceland more and more every time I come back for different reasons. Still, I always complain about the weather! If it were only hotter here, less wind and brighter winter I would definitely stay longer here every year. ”

Check out Katrin’s trips and travel stories on her blog, nomadiccosmopolitan.com, and follow her on Instagram (nomadic_cosmopolitan) to see photos from her journey.

 

Its nice to be home

Beautiful Dalvik, in Eyjafjordur

I´m back in Iceland, as it turns out, year after year, this at least stays the same. Iceland is wonderful for Christmas and New Years, but otherwise, May to September, what some could call spring, summer and fall, (or rather, ´not-winter´), are wonderful months, where I always feel like I’m at home. The smell of fresh, clean air and drinking ice cold water out of the tap that tastes like nothing are always two of my favourite things to do the moment I land. Within a few hours after that, I’ve found some natural hot pot or public swimming pool with steaming water to soak my tired bones.

Grettislaug, in Skagafjordur

No return home would be complete without a drunken party with my old Norse friends, a roadtrip to some remote, northern part of Iceland, visiting my horses, and pretending to be young and hip down Laugavegur downtown. In two weeks, Ive checked all of those boxes (some twice), but the horse situation is getting complicated and being ´home´, which is now my dad´s house, has been a little lonely.

Into the Glacier!

But, staying in the same place for more than 2 nights in a row is quite the anomaly anyway, so I’ve already spent half my time traveling around Iceland with friends. A friend of New York was in town and we went north to Skagafjordur. My best friend wanted to celebrate his birthday in one of Icelands boutique countryside hotels in Husafell so we did that, just after visiting Langjokull glacier with a Venezuelan photographer friend. I had a crazy horse in the north I had to ´deal´with (don´t worry, he´s still alive), and two horses I tried to ride home from Borgafjordur. We got more than half way, but then it started to get cold again and dad had to go to the hospital.

my Icelandic father, brother, and nephew

Now my horses are home, but not dad, but both my sisters will be visiting soon. Its weird to feel so much at home and be the only one at home (dads house is kind of out in the countryside of Reykjavik), and even weirder to have all this free time where I’m not traveling or moving or planning anything.

my horses at home

Needless to say, Ive gotten some rest and expanded my livelihood beyond the limits of my backpack, but of course theres already another trip in the works. Before my horse riding guiding season in Iceland starts, I figure I´ll have to get get my butt in saddle shape somewhere before. Anyone else want to come to Kyrgyzstan in June?

fun with Steve in Haugsnes

Welcome to Iran

Here’s a letter I wish someone from the Iranian tourism authority had sent me before flying one-way into Iran alone. 

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

Dear Tourist,

Welcome to Iran. We are a land famous for beautiful mosaics, Persian carpets, and ancient empires, and a people known the world over for our hospitality and endless supply of tea. However, please be aware of the following things before traveling in Iran.

We have a rich cultural history surrounding our bath houses and hammams, but presently social bathing is illegal and all our historic bathhouses have been turned into museums. There are banks on every corner, but none will accept your debit card and withdrawing money from abroad anywhere in this country is impossible. Bring a lot of cash because visa and mastercard (or any other international credit cards) are not accepted, and get used to a lot of zeros because even small things, like a taxi fare, are counted in the hundreds of thousands. Our money is printed as and called rials, but people refer to tomans, which is ten times less, so don’t get ripped off by paying ten times too much or insult someone by trying to pay ten times too little. However, for anything touristic, such as entrance to a museum, you will have to pay for an entrance ticket three to ten times more than a local. Also a taxi ride or a hotel room will be (legally) charged at a higher rate, since the government enforces different costs for foreigners. The same cup of coffee will not cost the same for you and a local, even if you order together.

You are not allowed to wear shorts, skirts or sleeveless shirts or anything else that would show your knees or shoulders. Please learn how to read Arabic numbers, since house numbers, streets, costs and bus numbers will usually only be written with them. Drivers are a little crazy and crossing the road inside or outside of a car are equally dangerous. Make sure you ride the metro or public bus in the right compartment – men in the front, women in the back!

If you are a woman, please also note: You must wear a hijab or wrap your head in some sort of scarf in all public places and inside cars. You cannot wear a skirt, but you must have a long enough jacket or shirt or skirt over your pants to cover your hips, so make sure you layer your pants under more clothing, preferably black. You cannot sing or dance in public or infront of men. You are not allowed to drive a motorcycle, or get on a motorcycle behind a man driving, since touching another man who is not your spouse or family member is a crime. Walking down the street with someone of the opposite gender who’s not related to you is also not allowed. Depending on the city you’re in, it’s also illegal to ride a bicycle, smoke cigarettes, or play pool. You must sit in the women’s only section of public transport, and of course mosques have a smaller women-only section which you can enter after wrapping yourself (and every part of your hair) in a chador (a big sheet, usually supplied to you).

Facebook, Twitter, and wordpress are some of the websites blocked in Iran, so make sure you get a virtual hotspot app if you want to access any of these sites. Airbnb and Coucshurfing are technically illegal too, and some couchsurfers are simply using the site to find an outside connection for help out of here, either with a visa, a foreign wife, or better-paying job offer. If you are a single woman, some men may consider trying to marry you, so pretend you’re married and wear a fake wedding ring. Or better yet, travel Iran with a man; it will save you a lot of hassle from taxi drivers wanting your phone number, men in bazaars following you, or random creepy men that assume western women are all super horny and none of them are virgins.

Since you are a tourist, many of these rules slide, but if an ethics police officer harasses you more than 3 times for any of the above, the punishment is prison or lashes, and adultery or rape will get you executed.

Welcome to Iran. We hope you enjoy your stay!

Women only

Women only

Weird things about Russia

Like any other big, powerful nation, everybody has an opinion or some stereotypes about Russia. Many haven’t even been there, but from the media, movies, or Russian friends abroad, people still manage to imagine the place in a certain way. I expected a lot of things, but was also surprised by many.

1.) People don’t smile, barely ever, but when they did, it was you the warmest smile anyone could ever give. And if they laughed, you always laughed with them 🙂

2.) The average person doesn’t speak English, especially not in the transport sector, so you had to be lucky to have a hotel receptionist that could answer all of your questions or go to a fancy restaurant to get maybe one waitress who could take your order (or get onto google maps or google translate and work it out yourself which was an easy plan B with all the open wifi networks). However, when they did speak English, sometimes they wouldn’t stop talking, and you’d be checking in or putting in your food order for 45 minutes while he or she chatted your ear off.

I'm going deeper undergound

I’m going deeper undergound

3.) The metro stations and subway systems in Moscow and St. Petersburg where built to resemble theaters or palace halls more than public transport. There were crystal chandeliers and marble walls, paintings and statues, and all sorts of golden highlights. The metro is also super deep underground, which had something to do with Stalin wanting them to double as bomb shelters after WWII.

4.) The number of Churches, churches, and more churches… Orthodox and Christian, and the attached monasteries, was unbelievable. I swear we drove thru towns that had more churches than houses, and taller churches than any tree or building around. And some of them built in the middle ages, still standing, and preserved. Who has the time and money for all of them? But the artwork, inside and out, and all the golden domes, never got tiring, so thank God for them, whoever they are. But one weird thing that came up a few times was fluorescent or neon name signs added to the facade of some red-brick ancient church… which kind of looked like someone’s attempt to turn the churches into the red-light district.

5.) The European-ness of it all. Russia always seemed like an other-worldly place, an exotic country that is just as far away and strange as China or India, just in different ways. But Russia is surprisingly European, at least the places I visited, to the point that basically no cultural barriers were felt. They could maybe tell who wasn’t Russian by the way we dressed, but otherwise we had everything else in common.

6.) Russia loves Italy and Italian everything – especially art, fashion, wine, and food – cheeses especially. The best restaurants had Italian chefs or Italian inspired cuisine, and many of the palaces from former great rulers had the footprint of Italy’s earliest beginnings of the Renaissance.

7.) From the tiny countryside villages to the downtown core of Moscow, traveling around Russia was super safe. I had a small fear of the gangster or mafioso type, a hard-faced Russian undergrounder or some super-rich armed men in black, but we only saw a lot of nice black cars with drivers for some very pretty business people. People were also incredibly honest, and I wasn’t cheated once for a bus ride or cornershop purchase, even if I handed over 10x too much money accidentally.

8.) You can rent a horse outside the downtown bars in Moscow. I met a woman riding around at midnight by almost walking into her on the sidewalk outside Pinch restaurant, and she wanted to let me pay to ride her horse around downtown that night in between the nightlife taxi traffic and sidewalks full of party people. It didn’t seem like the best idea at the time, but now I regret not doing it.

the countryside homes

the countryside homes

9.) There are villages in the Golden ring whose economy seems to rely solely on teddy bears. From tiny to life-sized stuffed bears, you can buy them from each and every house on the side of the road from at least 2 different villages that I saw. And some of those village houses were barely standing, tilting on such an angle that you thought the ground must be on a hill you didn’t feel.

10.) Russia and rabbits… I don’t know what it is, but they like rabbits, a lot.

 

Themes of the Middle East

I´ve gotten used to a few things after traveling some months in the Middle East. Starting in Lebanon and moving south to the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula in Oman, I now find myself in Arabic Africa, and a lot of familiarities have remained the same.

  1. Islam and the calls to prayer: Without fail, there is always a mosque within sight, a towering minaret hovering over a little village, or a humble little minaret peering between highrises. If you don’t see a mosque, then you most certainly will hear one, during one of their 5 calls to prayer every day, starting before dawn and ending after sunset. The mosques never seem to be in sync either, so during each prayer time the calls echo from street to street or in each neighbourhood a few minutes apart.
  2. Lack of alcohol and pork: Depending on the conservatism of each country, alcohol is either completely illegal, only available with a personal purchasing license, or only sold through western hotels. Pork was just as rare, since its very haraam (forbidden) for Muslims. In Kuwait and Somaliland, you can get hefty fines or even jail time for having a drink. Only in Lebanon, Jordan and Bahrain was alcohol and pork available to anyone (or sometimes only non-Muslims), but still not easy to find.
  3. Cheap gas: the price of gas was a fraction of what it is in Europe, and even more than half the price of North America’s cheap prices. You could fill a sports car with premium gas for $15, or pay only 32 euro cents for a liter of regular gas.
  4. Car friendly, pedestrian hating mobility: Side walks are nearly non-existent, and walking anywhere is weird, since the cities have been built for car traffic or those moving without cars are assumed to be of lower class or less money. Even buses were rare, since public transport would also mean the same, and everyone who’s anyone should be able to afford a car and the cheap gas. This causes a lot of traffic, round-abouts, impassable highways and crazy drivers. And it doesn’t help that they like to drive oversized American SUV’s and Japanese Land Cruisers as if they were in an Aston Martin (this comment applies mainly to Saudi drivers).
  5. Security, Security: The middle east is just as paranoid of terrorism as any European or North American place (if not more), and random searches, road blocks and checkpoints are a regularity. Passing through airport security as a woman was a little less hassling, since we don’t have to strip down to our socks and undershirts, but a handheld metal detector may still scans us before entering a mosque or supermarket. In Somaliland, you need to hire an armed military guard to accompany you on any trips outside of the city capital, Hargeisa.
  6. Endless Construction: Oil money has poured into the Gulf countries, very recently, quickly, and heavily, and its like they don’t know what to do with it other than build and develop. In Kuwait they regularly build something just to rebuild or redesign it, and some can’t build without destroying something first so these places are in a constant dusty state of being torn down and built up. And I mean up, up, up into the sky, sky scrapers that compete to be the tallest in the world. And the places they tear down sometimes have to be cleared to prepare the lot, so rubble is driven out of the city and in Qatar, they’re literally building a mountain out of it.
  7. Over-Perfuming: People literally cover themselves in perfume, and its not just eau de toilette, but ‘oud’, a kind of oil de toilette, so it lingers longer and stronger. It can be suffocating, for the entire time theyre near to you, and even if they’re walking past, a scent will linger, floating behind them for a few metres.
  8. Socializing alone or at home: If it wasn’t for the shisha bars and Starbucks, people would probably just stay at home sending whatsapp messages, both texts and voice recordings, all day long. For those who don’t smoke or have had enough coffee for the day, alot of socialising happens in the privacy of peoples homes. You can order in food, stay comfortably dressed, and hang out with the gays or women that dont seem to show face in the public sphere alone. Since alcohol is a no go, board games are a sort of social elixir, the in thing to do with a bunch of nerds who prefer it to watching any more television (we watch a lot of flat screens and big screens around here).
  9. Fashion: The men wear perfectly pressed, angelic white robes (dishdasha or thawb), with matching head scarves (gutra) crowned with a black rope thingy (ogal). The names change from place to place, as well as the colours (the robes can be shades of beige or grey and the scarves red or black checkered), but its always impressive to see how they flip and fold the ends of their traingular head scarf as if it were an extension of themself, like a head of hair to a woman. Then the women, wear a similar robe but more like a cloak, and usually black, called an abaya. Then they wrap their heads in a hijab, some cover their face below the eyes (a burka), some wear a sort of Zorro mask around their eyes (a nikab), and then there’s those who just drape their whole face with a sheer black sheet so they look like black ghosts floating around from far away. Things started to get a little bit more colourful for the women in the Emirates, and especially Oman, but nothing beats the African Muslim wear of a trillion bright colours adoring their dark, henna-tattooed skin.

 

Themes of the Balkans

summery scene below Knin fortress

summery scene below Knin fortress

Even though every country and each city had its own charm, there are a few reoccurring themes in the Balkans.

  • Stray dogs and cats: They are everywhere, some happy, some miserable, some fed, some not, and even some that have been neutered and then re-released. Some people who have pets and don’t feel like keeping it, or move away, sometimes leave them behind, and other animals are born in the streets, leaving the cutest puppies and kittens to pull on your heart strings and make you wish you could take them all home.
  • Food and mealtime: Breakfast is pretty straight forward, usually a combination of some bread and a yogurt drink, but lunch is the meal you eat after work at 5pm and some just skip dinner altogether. Everyone has a variation of burek/banitza and cevapi, aka kebab as a fast food staple, and cheese and these huge white beans can be added to nearly any hot meal.
  • Turkish influence: all the Balkan countries were once under Ottoman rule, and they’ve still left their mark hundreds of years later. Doner is everywhere, Turkish coffee is as common as espressos, and tea served in small cups with a slice of lemon is called Turkish tea. The markets are often called Bazaars, and a lot of words in their vocabulary are Turkish.
  • Fresh produce and homemade goodies: every market sells goods that follow the seasons, with tomatoes in summer to pomegranate in the fall, chestnut roasters closer to Christmas, and once in a while some Japanese apples. Every village and even each home in the right climate will grow their own grapes, make their own wine and rakia, and others have beehives and make the most delicious honey.
  • Exchange rates: I could only use the euro in, strangely enough, Kosovo, and Montenegro, and everywhere else had their own type of denar/dinar or lei/lev/lek. But none of the rates are that similar, so sometimes you pay in the fives and tens, and sometimes in the tens of thousands.

    Ostrog Monastery in the rock

    Ostrog Monastery in the rock

  • Tourist sights: My days have consisted of walking around pedestrian city centers, monasteries in or on top of rocks, and beautifully painted Orthodox churches. The frescoes never get old to stare at, and the places they put some monasteries, hundreds of years ago, makes me wonder how the heck they built them there. There are usually some mosques and fortresses as well, not a bad bonus.
  • Pollution: the cities in the Balkans are some of the most polluted cities in Europe, including Skopje, Sarajevo, Varna and Bucharest. I only really noticed it in the first two, but I definitely noticed my first breath of fresh air I took every time I reached the mountains again.

And there were a lot of mountains to pass to travel overland in the Balkans, and they were always a delight, and I still can’t decide if it was better to see them still in full bloom in October, gold and red when autumn arrived, or snow covered pines in my last week. I guess a mix of all three was the best, so I don’t regret traveling the Balkans now, even though everyone has persuaded me to come back in the spring.