Author Archives: Ahimsa

Truth is less strange than fiction

Some areas have such a strong sense of place that to visit them is to halfway live in a story. These places depend on the person of course, but you can imagine the first time you visit Tokyo or Paris or Rome and feeling the surreality of being in such a famed place. Crater Lake in Oregon has always been like that for me. This fall, I found another place.

I came to Transylvania to celebrate my favorite holiday of the year. The train that goes up the country passes farms and men in horse carts. Yellow and red trees and small ponds dot the countryside In fact the descriptions that Bram Stoker used in Harker’s diary are pretty spot on. I spent four nights in the small town of Sighișoara mostly because it’s where Vlad Țepeș was born. And I gotta tell you: this place is packed a horror story clichés. Luckily, we’re talking the Act I, vaguely ominous clichés rather than anything truly terrifying.

People on the streets give me grim-faced stares. Every yard has a dog that barks like mad when I go by. One street had a dead cat splayed out grotesquely in the street, surrounded by street dogs. The smell (and sight) of woodsmoke is everywhere. There are ruins even in the city center and yellow leaves dot the cobblestone streets. The mornings and evenings are chilly and foggy and there are strange harvest effigies (not to mention a mysterious locked door to nowhere) in my hostel room.

I climbed up to a plateau behind the city today where a group of shepherds sitting around a fire had to shout at their pack of dogs, who definitely felt like I had encroached on the territory of them and their sheep. These were big dogs that are responsible for keeping the sheep safe from bears, wolves, and lynxes. It’s hyper-real to be in a place that drips with so much of the exact atmosphere you expect.

The list goes on but the point is I’m fascinated that these elements that make me feel like I’m in the beginning of a story would make such a poor story. The village with unwelcoming members is as tired as any trope can be, and barking dogs might be even more tired. But they sure feel real when you’re there.

If anyone was writing a horror story in 2022 with those elements, they would be either getting ready to subvert these ideas or writing a very unoriginal story.

But here’s the thing. Being here and experiencing these boring ass story elements is fully the experience I could. This might explain why so many stories use boiler plate templates for plot and story. But real life doesn’t need subversion. Real life is happy to stumble from one cliché to another. Real life is, in short, far more boring and far more complex than fiction.

A Day in the Life: Skopje Strolling

This post is one-half of a day in the life double dosage. Check my sister’s blog for her take on the same day.
We had arrived in Skopje the day before. It’s known as the City of Seven Gates, which is admittedly a sweet nickname. But it should be called Statue City, because I don’t see how any city in the world could have more statues. Many of these are Alexander the Great adjacent, so needless to say they’re pretty rad.
I present a very small selection but I saw a few hundred in my wanders.

Saturday was our only full day in Skopje and we had a bit of a choice. A 3 hour walking tour, which was by all accounts quite good. Or finding our way to a bus and going to Matka Canyon, a wild region with tons of endemic butterflies, moths, and moth-erflies. Pretty easy choice, really. We had a free breakfast at the hostel (Shanti, which is easily one of the best places I’ve stayed in the last four months) which was coffee (for both of us) and muesli with fruit juice (for me).

Conflicting information resulted in us getting to the bus station an hour and half early, but it was a pleasant ride out of Skopje. The bus dropped us off about 10 minutes out of the village but we’d heard this could happen. Neither of us knew exactly what to expect: how far did the hike go, what did it entail, where did it go, and so on. This added to the magic of the day.

What a dam view!

We went through a small town: a scattering of restaurants, some lazy cats and chonky dogs. A little stream bubbled past and the high, rocky mountains hinted at the canyon to come. Many people hired kayaks or joined boat rides. This was tempting but not, in the end, compelling enough as following the track by foot. At first there were lots of people and everyone was so friendly it felt almost eerie. Didn’t they know they were in the Balkans? The land of resting fuckyou face? At any rate, they thinned out pretty quickly though and we had the trail mostly to ourselves.

I can only give the area the highest praise by saying the canyon reminded me of Seoraksan, one of my favorite hikes in the world. Okay, it didn’t reach the highs of Seoraksan but it was much easier to hike. It’s pretty much flat, in fact, and so required very little effort for the scenery. Eventually the trail ended and we made our way back. Normally out-and-backs are a bit of a bummer but in this case it was no hardship to see the views all over again.

We got back to the spot where the bus had left us off. There were half-a-dozen other people waiting there, some of whom had come with us on the bus. This was reassuring, but more and more taxi drivers showed up, saying “the bus doesn’t come today.” This is an old trick, of course, and we had seen there were half a dozen busses coming throughout the day. We waited an hour, ignoring the ever-more-desperate taxi drivers.

Finally a few tourists walked past us and let us know the bus had dropped them off half an hour down the road. We all got up and walked down the road. A taxi driver warned us “4 kilometers, very far.” Then he got in his car and let us know “6 kilometers to bus stop.” Eventually he left but funnily enough he actually wasn’t lying. It was a nice walk, with a cozy valley dotted with houses and the occasional church on one side gleaming in the late afternoon sun. But it did take more than an hour; eventually we reached enough civilization to ask a few shop keepers and stood at the side of road (no signs at all) until the bus came.

We got back in time to wander old town Skopje and the Turkish bazaar. We’d seen it the day before but only in the rain. Skopje has a reputation as a boring town but I found it endlessly fascinating.

Of special note were the ice cream flavors. In addition to classics like chocolate and “snikers” are special ones like Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, and Tiktok. These weren’t vegan so I didn’t try them but we can all admit that it’s a pretty good idea.

We didn’t find a lot of vegan restaurants in Skopje but the hostel had a decent kitchen. Janessa made some soy nuggets that we combined with hummus, corn, beans, and spinach in wraps and they were excellent.

One of the reasons we chose a hostel (other than saving money) was to meet other travelers and this night was 10/10 great. There were people from Chile, Spain, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and we chatted for hours about travel, our favorite Cyrillic letters ( ф was a clear winner, in case you were wondering) and so much more. A dude who kind of worked at the hostel had been to 75 countries, once traveling from Estonia to Capetown. An American girl told us about going to college with Obama’s daughter. The Chilean dude recommended hikes in the Andes. A guy from Egypt showed us the millions of views he got on Insta, Tiktok and so on. Many of us had been places the others were going and vice-versa so a lot of practical travel knowledge was shared. The party ended abruptly at midnight, so it’s only appropriate for this blog to do so as well.