All posts by Vago Damitio

Vago Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. He jumped ship from a sinking dotcom in 2000 and decided to reclaim his most valuable commodity, time. He bought a VW bus for $100, moved into it and set out on a journey to show the world that it was possible to live life on your own terms. That journey took him from waking up under icy blankets in  the Pacific Northwest to waking up under palm tress in Southeast Asia. Three years later, his first book, Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond was published. After diving into the Anthropology of Tourism and Electronic Anthropology at the University of Hawaii (with undeclared minors in film and surf) he hit the road again in 2008. Since that time,he's lived primarily in Morocco and Turkey, married a Moroccan girl he couchsurfed with, and become a proud father. He's been to more than 40 countries, founded a successful online travel magazine (this one!), and still doesn't have a boss. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook
statues of shoppers in Macedonia - Skopje

Skopje, Macedonia

The bus trip from Nis to Skopje was something that just really needed to happen. Serbia and I were like peanut butter and tunafish, we just didn’t go together at all.

view from the bus to SkopjeI was feeling pretty exhausted and emotionally depleted leaving Serbia and I was hoping that Macedonia would be a breath of fresh air. As we left Serbia I felt that same lifting of consciousness that comes whenever I leave the USA, it was like the eyes of the world were suddenly no longer looking right at me.

The modern Skopje MallIt wasn’t the only change. The landscape changed fairly dramatically as well. From the sort of rolling hills and fields of Serbia, there was suddenly a bit more contour to the land and while I still had the sense that this was the Mediterranean, it was different. When we passed the first mosque, I felt my spirits lift. al-hamdililah! The first town the bus pulled into was a shock too, far from being the lily white blondeness of Serbia, this was a definite brown town. The bus depot area was filled with dark Roma gypsies. The contrast was sharp and sudden. It was like going from Utah to Mazatlan. The town looked poor and the people, while they didn’t look overly cheerful like Pacific Islanders, they looked normal. Hard life for some, easier for others.

Skopje Family LoveI was reminded quite a bit of Morocco as the bus wound its way toward Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, I was feeling very good about coming to this place. Skopje seemed to be an economic success story with plenty of new building, a big park and pool, and thankfully, much less of the crappy tagging I’d seen too much of recently.

As usual, I’d looked online and saw there were some hostels in Skopje, so I didn’t go any further and do things that a normal person would like find out where they were, see if they were open, or anything else. I don’t recommend doing things this way.

Skopje StatuesSo, I arrived in Skopje, walked out of the bus station and looked for a sign saying hostel. I saw one and I walked off in the direction it pointed. Soon, I was wandering around what looked like a bad neighborhood and no sign of a hostel. Seeing a very pretty woman, I stopped her in the street and asked if she knew where the hostel on the sign was. She spoke great English and said that although she didn’t know where the hostel was, I should come with her so she could model the sexy underwear she’d just bought…oh wait…no, that was the little fantasy I had.

Instead, she told me she didn’t know where the hostel was but pointed me to the Hosteling International where they wanted $30 per night! I passed on that and decided to wander around Skopje pricing hotels. I’ll write about that in a later post along with a review of where I ended up staying.

Saviour of SkopjeSo, I had a nice wander around Skopje. It’s one reason I travel with only one light bag because I can do things just as if I don’t have a bag at all, mostly. I’ve gone on hikes with all my luggage, walked long, long distances, and even gone to amusement parks with everything I travel with.

Skopje was cool but expensive. The prices were about what I remembered from Paris. The coffee was about $6 at the first cafe I stopped at. Skopje was filled with upscale stores like Prada, Gucci, and plenty of cafe/bars named after all the cities of the world. Barcelona Cafe, Madrid Cafe, Baghdad Cafe, Buenes Aires Cafe and so on.

statues of shoppers in Macedonia - SkopjeOn a more interesting note, Skopje was filled with tons of bizarre statues and some incredible architecture, some of it built right around the old world architecture as this city becomes ultra-modern. When I looked around, it was astounding how many of the buildings are new! The reason? An earthquake in 1963 leveled 75% of the standing structures and everything after that was built to be ultra-modern. The initial project was to make Skopje the model of the entire socialist world. According to wikipedia ‘The plan was drawn by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, who also designed the new railway station. The plan was never fully carried out.”

I wouldn’t say that there are a lot of interesting sites in Skopje, but there is plenty to look at. The odd statues, the old town across the bridge, the Kale Fortress, and the interesting architecture. The heart of Skopje is Macedonia Square. If you search enough and care enough you can find the place where Mother Theresa was born. The house is gone, but the place is still there.

Skopje is surrounded with incredible things to do and Macedonia seems an amazing country. The cost surprise, I’m told is unique to Skopje, mainly because it is the capital city and as the nearest city to Kosovo and Prishtina that isn’t Serbian, it has benefited greatly from UN and NGO influxes of capital. The downside is that most of the bureaucrats and NGO staff are on bloated expense accounts which have opened the door to price racketeering and made Skopje a very high end city.

I was in a hurry to get to Morocco so I could give flowers to my wife on Valentines Day or I would have probably really enjoyed Macedonia. As it is, I can tell you that the wine is great and at about a Euro per bottle, an exceptional value.

Barbados Crane Beach

Barbados – Everything an Island Holiday Could Offer – On the Cheap!

Having lived for nearly a decade in Hawaii, I’m spoiled when it comes to islands. Let’s get that out of the way right now. When I go on an island holiday I want culture, weather, music, water sports, and a taste of luxury.

Much to my surprise, cheap holidays in Barbados fit the bill – without breaking the bank. In terms of beaches, you don’t have to look any further than the oddly named beach “The Crane” which is consistantly ranked among the top 10 beaches of the world. Okay, I fibbed a little – locals call it the Crane, but it’s more accurately named The Crane Beach and named after the hotel which sits on the cliff above it. So, spend some time on the sand and in the surf and then grab a pina colada and watch the sunset.

Barbados is very much a British island. English is the norm and when it’s time for sport – well, the locals get excited about football (soccer to Americans) and cricket.  If you want to stay at The Crane Hotel, it will cost you, but visits to the beach are free and you can sit in the lounge and drink tea or a cocktail while watching sport for just a few dollars.

If watching live sport is your thing there is cricket and polo nearly every weekend. Horse races can be bet on or simply watched for enjoyment.

festival of Crop Over in Barbados

Barbados is known for it’s eclectic mix of festivals – everything from African music and a celebration of the African roots at Crop Over to Celtic life at the Celtic Festival. Speaking of music – don’t be surprised if you see Rihanna – she’s a native Barbadan and the island’s favorite daughter.  No matter where you go, you’ll hear her.

Bridgetown, the capital city – is filled with eclectic galleries and museums. Admission fees run from free to a couple of dollars – of course if you buy a piece of art – you will pay a bit more than that. Bridgetown also has more than it’s fair share of restaurants with celebrity chef’s regularly making appearances – recently stars of the Food Network were on Barbados filming episodes of your favorite foodie programs –

In terms of places to stay – there is no shortage of variety on Barbados. A cheap guest house with breakfast included can be had for as little as $40 per night – of course, if you want to stay someplace fancier – you can pay $1600 per night in some of the world’s most expensive and luxurious hotels.  Barbados has hostels, bed and breakfasts, self catering apartments, and plenty of one star to five star hotels. Something for everyone.

By the way, while Barbados is generally safe – sleeping on the beach for the ultra-budget traveller is not advised. Like most places there are both drugs and crime in Barbados and while tourist areas are generally well policed – those who venture into areas where you could get away with roughing it- are setting themselves up to be robbed. In general, crime falls into property crime and not violent crime – but it’s worth the money to make sure you have a secure and reputable place to stay.

 

Malaysia street art

Exploring the Art and History of Malaysia

I’ve been to Malaysia several times. For my money, it’s one of the most interesting countries in the world and you can add to that the fact that you can almost always find someone who speaks English so it’s pretty easy travel. The first time I was there, I was doing the whole hippie backpacker South East Asian thing – I had virtually no money after having gone through China, Laos, and Thailand – I was in transit to where my few hundred dollars would last the longest – Indonesia. My trip to Malaysia that time was a bus ride from Thailand to Georgetown.

malaysia tea pots

In Georgetown I spent a few days at a hostel where I was introduced to the melange of English, Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures that call this fabulous country home.

My second trip, I had more money and time and focused on Kuala Lumpur down to the border with Singapore. This time, I had the chance to stay in a few five star hotels and to experience more of the food and culture of Malaysia.

Next time, I will bring my wife and family and we will book one of the  all inclusive Malaysia holidays I’ve recently been reading about.  It’s one thing to travel as a backpacker or a travel writer but with my wife and daughter there, I want more of a chance to dive into the art and history of Malaysia. This is a country that is Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim all at the same time! It is a country that was shaped by being in a strategic location. It is a country that offers a multitude of island and rainforest environments as well as the wonders of tropical seas.

Whether you are looking at the fantastical puppet shows or the exotic and beatuiful Malay dance and music – you will see the influence of the world here. It’s not just in the performing arts, but also in the fine arts. This mixture of cultures and ideas has created some of the  most vibrant and unique graphic arts you will ever encounter.  Typical Southeast Asian arts like Batik are mixed with things like silver and pewter smithing, painting, and the mixture of colonial,pre-colonial, and post-colonial architecture.

Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese, English, and of course Indo-Malaysian cultures all had their influence, but then you can add in the Arab and Indian influences which brought Islam and Hinduism to the peninsula and islands of Malaysia. Take it all, mix it in a mixing bowl and what you come out with is as delicious as Malaysian cuisine where you can go from fish and chips to daal to panko to pinepple fried rice and langosteins. Mmmm.

malaysia art

Artists like Keng Seng Chu and Awi Aziz have been shaking the conventional view of Asian arts and bringing a unique Malay influence into their work. It’s astounding to walk into a modern gallery in Kuala Lumpur and see how strong the voice and vision of today’s Malay artists can be.

Then, you can cross the street into a Hindi temple and see ancient artwork that is bordering on the pornographic or go to a Mosque and see craftsmanship and art that eschews the use of human or animal forms in favor of the geometric flavor of God. It’s all there, it’s an astounding country filled with astounding art.

I can’t wait to go back. I can’t wait to introduce my wife and daughter to it. I love Malaysia.