Volunteer work in Kosovo and Macedonia
We left Uvac in late June and made arrangements with a hostel in Prishtina, Kosovo to work there as volunteers for a few weeks. This was always the plan, as this is a good way to rest, get free accommodation for a little work, and meet new people. There are plenty of opportunities like this on offer, we use helpx.net to find hosts because it had the cheapest registration fee we could find, but you can also try workaway.info worldpackers.com, wwoof.org (working on organic farms).
Entering Kosovo and volunteer work in general
Imagine if this was a widely accepted mode of discovering the globe, people offering their two good hands in exchange for a little food and a place to stay, while really getting in touch with locals and get to know the country through their eyes. I think this is a great way of travelling and the world would be a better place, both travelers and hosts benefiting from the exchange. It does have some negative sides to it of course, certain people only see the free work they can get, exploiting the volunteer’s goodwill. Just be sure to read the reviews, and remember that you have no obligation to stay at a place if you feel something is wrong.
When we first thought about going to Kosovo, we were a bit wary, since all over the news and from Serbs themselves it is still pictured like a dangerous place, several, otherwise nice people told us that all of them are criminals. Also, there was no clear information on the usable border crossings from Serbia. Hence we were planning to go the long way, crossing back to Montenegro and then to Kosovo, but looking at the map and all the climbing involved, we didn’t really feel like it at the end. So what’s the worst that can happen? Let’s go directly, we decided. In the last Serbian town we went to the police station for info and got reassured about safety. They gave us tips on the best road and said we shouldn’t worry, so ahead we went.
I’m really glad we chose this way, because we were riding beside a beautiful river and lake, with slopy, green hills surrounding it, and the border crossing was like any other we did so far. Besides, this saved us a ton of climbing (what is enough is enough), and we could arrive to the hostel in one long day to finally get the dust off from the road. Even before getting to Prishtina we got a feeling of the country a bit, people seemed really friendly, waving and saying hello. Getting used to yet another language was not easy, especially Albanian, which was really foreign and far away from any other we’ve encountered before, but you can get by with English most of the time in the capital.
Prishtina, and unexpected things
Prishtina surprised us, as it looked very modern, remarkably like other Western European cities, with lots of fancy cars, mobile shops, plazas, etc. Traces of the east were mixed in though, traffic was chaotic, open markets around every corner and even cheaper prices than in Serbia (we spent 100 euro on food in two weeks, with lots of restaurant visits!).
The hostel owner, Chelsea was a Texan living in Kosovo for the last six years, and loving it. She greeted us warmly and made us feel at home immediately. The work schedule was not too demanding, and we had plenty of free time to enjoy the city, cook, and hang out with guests and other volunteers. A group of friends quickly formed naturally, and things like eating and going out were mostly done together. It way almost like a small, albeit, temporary family.
I really enjoyed shopping at a market again and getting everything without packaging. I still had to decline the plastic bags, so the first Albanian sentence I learned was “Nuk du qese” – I don’t need a bag. I still managed to produce some confusion and funny encounters with sellers, the silly Western European, who is trying to change the world. 🙂
Sadly, looking around, the city was drowning in plastic bags, as cashiers put even a pack of gum into one. On top of that, there’s no recycling system in the country yet, although that is usually not the solution to the plastic problem anyway.
But the highlight of our stay, which we enjoyed the most and was eagerly looking forward to it when the weather turned sunny again (the first week was pretty gloomy) was an enormous pool – bigger than a football field – at the edge of the city. This is the biggest open door pool I have seen in my life, but after learning that it was formed from a lake, it made more sense. Our group of friends made several visits there, and the entrance fee was so cheap we didn’t have to worry about it at all, chilling in the hot balkan summer.
Eventually we had to leave our short lived family, only to come together one last time at a famous waterfall while heading towards Albania, Mirusha falls. There was a bit of confusion on the way, and by the time we got there, a thunderstorm broke out, so our plans of a campfire turned into a cold but cheerful night under a cafe’s roof. Half of the group even slept there, just putting up our mats on the floor, clearing out some space from the tables and chairs. The next day we said our last goodbyes, but a lot of us still keep in contact through social media and I feel like we made some lasting friendships, which is one beautiful aspect of travelling.
Apart from the waterfall, there are plenty of nice places to go around the countryside if you want to discover more than just Prishtina, like Prizren or Peja, the latter being part of the Balkan peaks trail, where we really wanted to go, but couldn’t make it this time (more on that later). So don’t listen to the media, and if you want to go to Kosovo, just do it. 🙂
Our next job in Skopje
Even before we left the hostel, we already had the next volunteer job in place. We found it in another hostel in Skopje, where we – actually mostly Alan – had to stay a long time. A bit of a quarrel with the owner created a negative atmosphere, and even though she went travelling, she continued to harass and give commands through the phone. Also the city itself doesn’t have that much to offer for such a lengthy stay, but our hands were tied due to a short visit by plane to Budapest and back. A metal plate in my ankle from a broken bone surgery 5 months before leaving left me no other choice, cycling all around the world with that didn’t sound quite right.
From other travelers in Prishtina who already went to Skopje, we heard that the previous government went overboard with pillars and statues to copy the Greeks, but still, the ridiculousness of it hits you hard when you see it first. Most Greek style column facades in front of enormous buildings are not even made of stone, instead Styrofoam is used, because they ran out of money at the end. The city is full of grandiose buildings and huge statues of noname people, making you feel like an ant walking around, all the while contemplating the waste of money involved. At least the riverside and the huge park by it is nice and have a cozy vibe to it, and there is a more or less authentic old town and a super cheap, traditional green market, which made living there super affordable (and almost totally packaging free).
Hiking to Matka, the beautiful river gorge
We made a two day hike over the mountain above Skopje before I left. There is a huge cross looming over the city, and the hiking trail started at the hostel, so it was not a question that we check it out. To go all the way to the river on the other side of the mountain included a pretty sleep descent the next day, but the view, as always, was worth it. A thunderstorm hit us, although this time around we found shelter, and even a cute companion followed us till the end, where we had to leave her behind.
Complications and solutions
In order to heal after the surgery and have the option to deal with some extra stuff and paperwork I left behind, I spent 10 days in my home town – not surprisingly, my mum was super happy about it. In order not to ruin the scar, I was told to keep away from cycling for five more days after I got back to Alan, then the stitches could be removed (of course we did that ourselves). This put us into a rather tight spot, because as soon as I touched down, the owner told us to leave, even though she knew our situation. We managed to get by however, eventually founding an abandoned building next to our previous house. Alan only had to carry the bikes up a few floors on stairs with rubble, easy 🙂
Our only problem was that his mattress was so full of holes that it was impossible to repair it then and there (and we really tried with the options we had), so sleeping on a concrete floor was not an option, but luckily we found an old bed mattress in the ruins, so the problem was temporarily solved. Nevertheless, we are still pretty disappointed in the performance and longevity of the Thermarest, since it was a quite expensive piece of equipment, although I am not giving up yet on warranty or repair. To be sure, next time around we order something sturdier, probably not an air mattress, or accompanying it with some light yoga mat to give an extra layer of protection.
Finally the 5th of August arrived, the day we were able to leave the city. It wouldn’t have been necessary, but we were forced to do it anyway. The abandoned building had an owner, who found us and told us to leave, mostly because they started taking it apart. Perfect timing, even though I still had some pain to push the pedals, making the first few days back into cycling rather short. After more than a month of almost no cycling, we were eager to do it again however, and thrust ahead to discover Macedonia.