Day 61: Prishtina

11.08.2013. Along with Bosnia and Albania, Kosovo is a country which I had really looked forward to visiting in this trip. After 2 months of travelling, I finally crossed its friendly borders from Macedonia, welcomed with the widest of smiles from the border police. As I initially suspected, this young country doesn’t necessarily have much to see (or at least not now). But visitors expecting the usual tourist attractions is misguided. It is a country one arrives to feel, to learn and to understand.

The Republic of Kosovo declared its independence on 17 February 2008, effectively becoming the world’s second youngest country (only South Sudan is ‘younger’). Its path to independence was fraught with a war and casualties, and many challenges continue in present day, be it a struggling economy or gaining international recognition. Due to nations facing their own separatist problems, or having different interpretations of the international law, not all countries have recognised Kosovo as a country. As of June 2013, 103 countries out of 193 UN members have recognised Kosovo as an independent state.

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The ‘Newborn’ monument in Prishtina, painted with flags of countries which have recognised Kosovo as a country

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The old town of Prishtina, which is as real as it gets

Prishtina is Kosovo’s capital city, characterised by 2 main roads- the Bill Clinton and the Mother Theresa Boulevards. The former American president is a popular figure in Kosovo, having led the NATO forces during the Kosovo war in 1999 against the ex-Yugoslav forces. The latter is the main square and hub of Prishtina, lined with chic cafes and restaurants. Each night the whole of Prishtina seems to congregate at this square, giving it a sense of community which one can’t quite see any more in capital cities of the world.

My trip was highlighted by the people I met- be it the local vendors who walked up to me, shook my hands and invited me to take photographs of their wares; the drivers who gave me a friendly horn and a thumbs up as I point my camera at their beautiful old town; or the new local friends I made, who so graciously shared such tremendous insights to their country and introduced me to the city’s legendary night life. I was overwhelmed by the sheer friendliness of Kosovo’s people, a consistent feature of my time in the Balkans.

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The Bill Clinton Boulevard

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The Mother Theresa Boulevard. Atmosphere at night is fantastic

It was riveting to spend August 9, Singapore’s independence day in Kosovo. Looking at the success of my nation’s transformation from third world to a world class city in a mere 40 odd years; I can’t help but wish Kosovo the same, as it finds its young feet in the increasingly complex world, and hopefully along the way, to not lose sight of the heart and soul of its people.

As my new friend Gezim said, “Don’t just hear and read about Kosovo, come and have a look at it yourself.” I could not have say it any better myself.

Day 31: Cardiff

12.07.13. After a 5 hours train ride from the drab city of Bangor, I arrived at Marlais Street in Roath, Cardiff. This is not a typical place for finding accommodation as a tourist, but I was here to couchsurf, my first time doing so.

A youthful looking girl alighted from her bike in front of the house, and this was swiftly followed by another latin American guy- clearly foreign, coming in from the opposite direction, also entering the same house. “Oh, are you here to couchsurf?” said the girl. “Are you hosted by Tom or Anton?

I met Tom, my host for the 2 nights, a 21 year old student studying to be a doctor. Soft spoken, Tom is intelligent, articulate and almost seemed too worldly for his age. I wished I was like him when I was his age.

I was introduced to the rest of the gang, the owners of the house, all in their early twenties- Lizzie, Anton and Amy, whom I met at the door. By the end of my stay, I also met people from Argentina, Germany, Ireland, Sweden and Belgium. We played a few games of Kubb and frisbee at the park nearby, and had home made Pizza for dinner. It was clear these guys took the idea of Couchsurfing like a storm.

The rest of my time was spent exploring Cardiff. Bustling and compact, the capital of Wales is a cosmopolitan city that seems world’s apart from the rest of the country. I spent most of my time at the beautiful Cardiff Bay, basking in the excellent sunny weather and good live music.

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Cardiff Bay with the impressive Pierhead

My hosts could not be more different from me, but it was still a very enjoyable experience. I didn’t think I missed too much of my student life after this. But all too often I was reminded of the stage of life I’m in as well as its priorities. How different they must have been compared to these cheerful, devil-may-care students, I can only imagine.