With the travel industry expanding year over year, we sometimes forget that travel is a privilege. In this episode, Lavdi from KosovoGirlTravels shares about Kosovo and her travel adventures. We speak about challenges of traveling with the Kosovan passport, working with the UN in South Sudan and how respecting cultures can help open your mind to other perspectives. Traveling with the Kosovo passport has its challenges but don’t let the limitations stop you from experiencing the world.
- 02:15: Working with UN in South Sudan
- 08:50: Surviving with Covid in South Sudan
- 12:10: The country of Kosovo
- 17:50: Misperceptions of countries
- 29:30: Traveling in Kosovan culture
- 36:30: Challenges of traveling with a Kosovan passport
- 41:50: How the travel bug is formed
- 46:35: How traveling changes perspectives
- 55:00: Advice for Kosovans who want to travel
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The following is an extremely summarized version extracted from the transcript of the full conversation. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast for all the valuable insights. You will also hear more detailed and contextualized stories from the guest(s), as well as pointers from me in a two-way conversation.
Please tell us more about yourself and your background?
Not many people have met a traveler from Kosovo because it’s not easy to travel. I started my blog about four years ago, in 2017. I love traveling, and I started the travel blog to share information about Kosovo because there isn’t much online about Kosovo. And whatever there is, is misinformation or miss guiding to what traveling to Kosovo means and what to see and do. It’s not my full-time job; I have a full-time job. My blogging is just more of a hobby. I haven’t put much into my travel blog, especially during Covid times. I’ve seen so many people being productive during Covid times, but I haven’t. I kept working; I didn’t have to work from home; I kept working from my office. I haven’t kept traveling. I only did the necessary travel to come back home and visit my family and friends.
Can you tell us more about your work with the UN?
I was freelancing in Kosovo for a local NGO dealing with gender studies. Then I got this job offer with a UN mission in South Sudan. I didn’t know much about South Sudan as a country. So, I tried to find out how it is to live there because that was my concern. It was not that easy. There isn’t much about South Sudan regarding what you need there and what the conditions are like. However, I decided to take the opportunity and go there. I had been planning to travel to Africa, to the countries I can’t travel to because I have a coastal passport only, limiting my travel. This job offer coincided with my plan of traveling to the continent of Africa. It took a long time because my first email with a job offer happened in February. I had an interview in March, and then by June, I found out I had got the job, and I could move there in November. So, the whole of 2018 was working on what is happening next, the next step. When I checked for Instagram posts about young people stationed where I would be working, they were not informative. So, I didn’t get to know much. However, I decided to take the job and go. I am there serving as a UN Volunteer; I’m not a UN staff. I do not have a laissez-passer (UN passport) which would have all my issues with traveling. As UN volunteers, we are not entitled to a UN passport. My job is in administration because I have a Master’s in Public Administration, so I’m working in my field. It is interesting; it is challenging.
I stay in a village. It has a good size because I was discussing it earlier with my mom; it has so many fresh fruits and vegetables. They are bio. They don’t put any chemicals in them. So, it’s like just fresh from the branch or fresh from Mother Earth. The downsides are that there aren’t many places to go out. We do lack westernized restaurants where you can have a nice meal and good service, from my perspective. I think the way we judge something depends on our background. Sometimes we tend to be insensitive and forget about the country where we’re living. We go with our background information and our expectations. At times, I find myself being that westernized person who expects things to happen differently. I have to stop myself and realize this is another country. Some things happen here differently. It has its pros and cons.
How long do you stay in South Sudan for work?
As a rule, every six weeks you spend in the country, you are entitled to rest and recuperation, or R&R, as we call it. So, we can leave the country. It’s not mandatory; you can stay longer. But we are entitled to seven calendar days extra, in addition to annual leave. I don’t come home every time because as I am in Africa, I want to travel more on the continent itself. Also, the flight tickets are costly from here. I try to split my R&R between travel and visiting home. Nobody has their family there because the situation is not stable, so you cannot bring your family. But every six weeks that we spend in the country, we get like one week off, and then you can combine your annual leave days, and you can make it longer. I wanted to travel, and I did. I have traveled to a couple of countries in Africa. Then once Covid started last year, it changed everything. I had my Easter plan to go to Ethiopia for a week, but that plan got ruined. I got stuck in the Yambio for more than four months because I couldn’t leave the country as my airport in Pristina in Kosovo was closed. The airport in Juba, South Sudan, was closed. So, I had to stay there for four months.
What did you do there for four months?
I worked and tried to maintain mental health by just walking around the compound. Due to Covid, we had to stop all the social gatherings. It was difficult; it was stressful because all my meetings were online, and we’re about Covid. About how to protect ourselves and how to prevent Covid. The first COVID case was confirmed in South Sudan on April 5th. So that created more tension because then we were even more limited. It wasn’t easy. It was very stressful.
How is South Sudan doing in terms of COVID cases?
In terms of Covid cases, they haven’t declared that many because they are not testing. It’s mainly people who travel abroad who get tested or have been in contact with positive cases. So maybe they haven’t had many cases? And that’s a good thing there have been about 60 deaths. So it’s not even in three digits, which is very good because the medical infrastructure is not good. It could be challenging for countries like South Sudan that suffer other things, like poverty and instability, to cope with a pandemic. So it’s fortunate that they haven’t had a high number. However, they have the New South African variant of Covid already there, which is even riskier. In addition to that, there are other illnesses that South Sudan is fighting, like Ebola is still a threat, especially in the area where I live because it’s close to the border. So Ebola is a continuous fight along with malaria and typhoid; there are all kinds of things. So it’s fortunate that it’s not a country where it’s easy to visit because I think if there were more tourists, it would be even worse. After all, travelers brought Covid to different countries. I’m not blaming travelers because I’m a traveler myself.
Can you tell us more about Kosovo and its culture?
We’re in Southeast Europe. It is a small country with about 2 million citizens, that’s about 11,000 square kilometers of territory. We are similar in size to Delaware. The primary language that we speak here is Albanian because 94% of the population is from Albania. The other official language we use is Serbia because we have 4% of Serbian people. And we have different other communities here as well. So, we have lots of different cultures. We have three main big cities, starting from Pristina, the capital city, then Prizren and Peja. They are the main cities travelers visit. I will call them the three Ps. The leading museums and government buildings are in Pristina. There is lots of graffiti for those who want to see different street art. But I think what attracts the most visitors is the coffee culture and closeness that people feel here; guests are treated like kings or queens. Whenever we have a guest in our house, we want to treat them as best as possible; this is evident in the hospitality industry. Some people will go above and beyond to help you as a foreigner. Even if they don’t know or they cannot communicate in English. They will try to help, and if they cannot, they will find someone else who can. So, this hospitality makes every kind of visitor in Kosovo special. After visiting Pristina, people mainly go on to Prizren, an extensive, multicultural National City. It has a mix of different nationalities and a magnificent castle at the top of the mountain with a beautiful city view. The best time to climb up and go to the castle is sunset. The view over Prizren with all the small places and bridges is nice.
There is a lot of culture; we call the Prizren League House, where the Albanian leaders under the Ottoman Empire gathered. They decided to fight against the Ottoman Empire to free the Albanian lands. So, it also has lots of history in it. People visit Peja for the forest nature; you can go to Rugova Canyon, where you can hike, go for picnics, or do zip lining. These are like the three main cities, but there are other cities in Kosovo where you can visit castles. There is this village called Legnica in the southeast of Kosovo. You can see the church where Saint Mother Teresa, who was of Albanian origin, but her parents were Romanian, talked about her call to serve there. We don’t have a beach, but we can go to the beach in Albania, three hours away. We are suitable for skiing. If people want to go skiing, we do have some excellent resorts. I’m not a winter fan.
Why do you think Kosovo often overlooked for tourism?
There has been lots of propaganda. I’ve seen all these kinds of posts on Facebook traveler’s groups. Some people say if you go to Kosovo, you can never go to Serbia; this is false. You can go to Kosovo and Serbia. Sometimes, the only thing is if you are not an EU citizen, you don’t have an EU biometric ID. You cannot go directly to Serbia from Kosovo because they will consider it illegal entry, as the Soviet does not recognize Kosovo yet. However, you can go through Macedonia to Serbia, and you will not have any issues.
I have to start interacting with people and ask them not to spread misinformation as it’s not true. It’s not good for people to put it out there because you don’t know how many people will be influenced by that. It’s not one traveler who will skip Kosovo. It is an obstacle to having more tourists.
Another thing that stops people from coming here is that they still have that image of war. It’s been 22 years now, and there have been many changes in Kosovo, and it is stable and safe. Of course, there are cases where things happen, but they are rare and happen everywhere. Some people pass through Kosovo on day trips, but it requires time; you can easily spend a week here and still have more to see.
Are the number of travelers to Kosovo increasing?
Honestly, it has increased, compared to previous years. There is a period, as a season, when there are more travelers. We don’t have many travelers during winter because it’s cold and nobody wants to come and get stuck in their hostel. But the number is increasing, not many Asian tourists, unfortunately. It’s primarily Americans and Western Europeans. Although just before Covid, I saw a few more Japanese and Chinese tourists in groups, not independent travelers. There aren’t as many tourists as I would love to have, but the numbers are improving. You will see more during the summer period because the weather is nice. In Prizren, you cannot tell who is a tourist unless they have a backpack because it’s an international city because of all the embassies and international organizations.
In Prizren in July or August, a film festival attracts many visitors, Albanians, and foreigners. Most of the people who come to Kosovo come from the mountains in Peja. Everything is affordable; nothing is expensive. You can sleep in a hostel for 10 euros a night, in the city center of Machina. Food and beer are not expensive here, because I’ve learned to compare the prices, it’s affordable and suitable for everybody. Even backpackers can do it; budget travelers, luxury travelers, can also visit. So it offers everything, you have a variety of prices, and you can find something for all kinds of travelers. And there are places for solo travelers, groups, and family travelers. So we offer everything.
When choosing trips and countries, do you use word of mouth to help you decide where to go?
In any country, it’s possible to miss out on things. I spent three weeks in Kenya; when I left Kenya, I was scrolling down Instagram, and I noticed I had missed so much. I had done my research, and I knew there was so much to see. I find that whatever bad news is, it spreads fast. The good news, people tend not to care about good reviews anymore. If you have a negative post out there, it will spread. But if you share good things about anywhere, it will likely have limited news. But if we can influence a couple of people, those few people visit, and they tell other people. Media do not represent real feelings.
Is the travel culture strong in Kosovo?
Traveling is not common. At least one immigration officer has told me that I was the first Kosovo person they’ve seen in every country I’ve visited. Many factors impact our limited travelers. First, because Kosovo is not fully recognized yet. Some countries do not accept our passports, so we cannot travel there. We need a visa almost everywhere. Then there is the money issue because not many people can travel. It makes everything more expensive; flight tickets and affordable companies. The main problem is the visas, the lack of freedom of movement. In this case, I’m talking more about the EU countries, European Union. Although we are in Europe, geographically, we’re not part of the EU. We don’t even have visa liberalization.
To get a Schengen visa, you have to fill in all sorts of papers to submit to the Embassy. This does not apply to all embassies. Generally, you need a birth certificate, a work contract, proof that you have a job. You’re coming back then; you need your bank statement for the last month or six months and health insurance. It would help if you had some of these things anyway. Still, health insurance, flight ticket, accommodation, and some embassies want it to be non-refundable. Then, of course, you need passport photos for the visa and a three-page application form that you have to fill out. It’s costly, and you have to wait sometimes for three months to get your visa appointment. My last experience applying for a Schengen visa was a three-month wait. I scheduled my appointment in November, but my appointment wasn’t until February. They can start making you feel guilty for traveling to different countries during the process. You are under investigation, and they want to ask all kinds of questions. My last Schengen visa was issued the day before I was supposed to fly. Luckily, my visa was valid for three months, which was a good thing because embassies can only issue visas for three days.
t’s ridiculous because, in my case, I had a three-year valid visa for the US. But the EU countries give me a three-month visa to stop me from staying in their country. If I wanted to stay somewhere, I would have remained in the US. When I moved to South Sudan, I didn’t apply for another Schengen visa, but I got fed up. It was tiresome. We cannot be spontaneous. We cannot buy a last-minute plane ticket and travel without a passport or visa. Traveling should be passport-free if we can afford it travel, we should go wherever we want.
Is the immigration process a hassle?
It is, but then you tend to forget about those kinds of bad experiences in immigration. The first time when I went to Zanzibar and then on my way back, I had at least two hours at the airport. A Kenya Airways official was telling me that I needed a transit visa. I was not even leaving the airport. I was there for less than two hours. They kept me for two hours, going back and forth between the check-in counter and Kenya Airways office. I showed them the Kenyan government’s official website saying that no nationality needed a transit visa for up to 72 hours if you’re staying at the airport. It took them at least two hours to figure out that it was okay. The latest time I had this issue entering Zimbabwe, I had a visa issued by their system. I still couldn’t enter Zimbabwe because they didn’t recognize Kosovo. I was trapped between the Zambia and Zimbabwe border for six hours. Then, in the end, I had to pay for another visa and enter Zambia again. Every time I go through immigration that has not seen many Kosovo citizens, it takes at least five or 10 minutes for them to go through my passport and check to see, what is this?
What got you interested in traveling?
I think there are probably a couple of factors. I loved to read; I still love reading, and reading brings you to different cultures in different places. I had my first trip when I was six years old to Belgrade, Serbia. I still consider it as out of the country, although at the time, Serbia occupied us. But that was my first trip outside of Kosovo. I don’t remember much, but I remember how I felt seeing something different. Then fast forward, I had my first flight to Nice in France. I went to this high school festival. There were people from all kinds of cultures, countries, and continents; it was a good thing to hang out, dance, eat and talk. My work meant traveling, and I get hooked. The more you travel, the more you understand that you meet people who have traveled to other countries you haven’t visited. Then, they start talking to you about that. I spent two years doing my Master’s in Chicago; I traveled a lot more when I was there. I was always thinking about the country I could go to next. So, I guess this triggered my traveling, even more, that freedom of traveling. I’m intrigued by places that lots of people do not think of. The more you travel, the more you get into that world of travelers and traveling, the more you see. Maybe it’s forbidden fruit for all the restrictions and obstacles; it makes it even more challenging; I like the challenge. It’s always good to visit something new and experience something different.
How has traveling changed your perspective of the world?
I think traveling changes you and you have to be an open-minded person to travel. It’s like the chicken and the egg story. I don’t know which one is first. Do you have to be open-minded and then travel? Or do you become open-minded while traveling? I think it has made me understand that we the same; we are all people, we are all faced with the same issues. We all face the same problems, like insecurity about our future, and lately, it has become very superficial. It’s not about close connections any more. Most people don’t get to know someone; it’s all about Instagram and all about like and that perfect shot. I don’t care a lot; if you have gone through my feed, it’s mainly about nature. Travel has given me another perspective. Coming from Kosovo, we have gone through a terrible war and post-war period and grew up with the country’s development into independence; of course, it gives you a different perspective. And Kosovo is still developing. I have had many obstacles, lots of things to go through as a child, teenager, and adult. I see it as having made me stronger to face any difficulty. Then going from Kosovo to the US, where everything is so different, it’s a different experience because you have to start adjusting.
You begin to know how things function and what part of your society you’re in. My two priorities were to finish my Master’s and travel to as many US states as possible. But of course, it also gave me the chance to make friends. I made lots of friends from different nationalities, like France, China, India, Bangladesh, and Mexicans. Once you start getting to know people personally, you also begin to understand more. We are all prejudiced because I think the main problem is not knowing others’ priorities and challenges. If you take the time to go and see other places, you can get to know things. When you go there and try to mold into the local’s experiences, then, of course, you will start to understand more.
I also travel through public transport because I wanted to see how others travel. It was tiresome and very annoying, to be honest. It gives you experiences and knowledge. It also shows you what others think of foreigners. Now living in South Sudan is a different experience again. I’m hoping to live somewhere in Asia or Latin America next.
What tips do you have for other Kosovans who want to travel the world?
Firstly, when you travel, your passport is weak and has lots of limitations because so many countries won’t accept us. Secondly, travel doesn’t have to be expensive. You can still travel on a budget because there are so many options to travel with less money. There are so many Facebook groups, especially women, where other women offer accommodation to you. You don’t have to go and spend loads of money. Kosovo citizens cannot travel to EU countries. They can travel to Asian or African countries; they are open and accepting. Travel where you can there, are so many beautiful countries out there.