I look at the papaya and wonder if I can describe it as a tropical delight that is the poor man’s mango. How is my milky filter coffee? Perhaps it is a mellow, polite blend with strong musings of the Malabar. And the traffic jam that I see outside my window? The confused conundrum of a caravan of cars? I am practicing my wordsmithing skills because only this morning I got a message from World Nomads informing I will be one of the three awardees of their travel writing scholarship and will be sent on a two week assignment to Balkans!
After a month of hoping I could fast forward time to my departure date I am finally on the plane to Europe. The setting for our travel writing workshop is an old 18th century house in Klinci, a small village near the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. Here I meet Helen and Alex, the two other talented winners of the scholarship and Tim Neville, our enthusiastic mentor. Over the course of the next three days Tim discusses how to craft an engaging, entertaining and informative travel story without resorting to the usual trappings of generic listicle like writing. Tim is a great combination of a teacher and friend. With him we visit the Bay of Kotor, eat at traditional Konobas, trample around in olive farms, explore communist era submarine tunnels, bond over sunset dinner cruises – and learn to write about it all.
After those eventful 3 days, I join Alain Bilal, my playful guide who runs the tk-tour company and helps me make sense of the complex history and culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sarajevo, the capital, is a living history book. Across the Latin bridge is a plaque marking the spot where Gvarilo Prinsep shot Franz Ferdinand and set into motion the First World War. Not far is a tunnel built by Sarajevans in the early 90’s to survive the longest siege in modern military history that lasted almost four years. In Herzegovina, Alain takes me to the local villages to try their cheese and honey. I scribble away in my notebook as talking to the locals helps me understand the psyche of the region and also uncover some stories that I hope will become articles later on. But it's not all work - en route we stop to take a dip in the invigorating waterfalls of Krivica, inspect the ruins of a fort in Počitelj and see divers jump off an Ottoman bridge and into the gurgling Nervata River in Mostar.
It is only when I loop back into Montenegro that I realize that I miss the Bosnian humor and spontaneous invitations to down cups of strong local coffee. But Montenegro has its own attractions. I keep aside my notebook and take up the steering wheel. It doesn’t matter where you are going all drives in Montenegro are memorable. Factor in sweeping ocean vistas from mountain passes, sunsets along coastal roads and road signs that ask you to prepare your cameras as there’s a ‘view point ahead’. I trek in the Durmitor National Park, raft the Tara river and amble around in the old Albanian town of Ulcinj.
As I take a boat tour in the Skadar lake that straddles the borders of Montenegro and Albania, and look at the reflection of the sky on it’s clear surface I realize how incredibly fortunate I have been. Each of the shortlisted scholarship applications was a clear winner. I feel grateful at being the one chosen for this assignment. I also think of the week I spent staring at the blank screen of my laptop unable to write an story for my application before I forbid myself to get out of the room without finishing one. As my tryst with the Balkans nears its end, I realize that a travel writer travels twice. First when he visits a place, and again, when he writes about it.
See how this opportunity has made Kaushal a better travel writer.