An afternoon in Ohrid

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Travels in Macedonia

Happy Holidays, Everyone,
Sunday brunch, Macedonian style chez Wiggum: scrambled eggs with two kinds of peppers, onions and garlic, put in a lightly sauteed tortilla and topped with shredded pepper cheese (kashkaval), sheep cheese, (cirenje), and tomatoes and avocadoes - a rare treat. Yummm.

Just returned from Debar, a small town on the Albanian border, where I helped Ellen and Mere with their wonderful spelling bee. Since we aren't allowed to drive in Macedonian, most of our travel is on buses, with an occasional train trip thrown in. I write a lot about traveling on buses, because each and every trip is an adventure! The bus system here is something else. There are hundreds of bus companies in Macedonia, and each has its own system. There is no central coordinated bus scheduling, so no matter where you go, part of the fun is figuring out how to get there and then how to get back. Looking on the internet generally nets me little information, so I am reliant on other volunteers to help me with the different times, lines and rules. For example, generally round trip tickets cost less, but with some companies they are only good for a day, others a week, and others a month. You need to make sure you return on the same company you bought the ticket from - and there are often several serving the same areas. Some companies assign seats, others grab one where you can, and so on. Generally when I travel on buses I try to get a seat by myself because I'm usually hauling a backpack, purse, and bag filled with stuff, and I like the room, but I've had some of my most wonderful conversations when I'm 'forced' to take a seat with someone.

The buses themselves are usually bought used after a full life in Europe, so they often look a tad worse for wear. Seats are often broken, engines questionable, interior tattered and worn. There are two main lines from Gostivar to Skopje, one which has nice buses and a direct route to Skopje, and one which is more questionable that often goes to Skopje via Tetovo. Of course the latter company has more runs, especially on weekends, so I am often forced to take it. Once Kerry and I were going to Skopje for a meeting. Fortunately, Zhats had a direct bus that morning, as well as one that went through Tetovo. When we were ready to leave the station, however, things started looking a little sketchy. The driver couldn't get it in gear, and it took us about 5 minutes just to leave the station. Clearly, he was fighting the transmission, and the transmission seemed to be winning. We finally got out of Gostivar, but after stopping at a toll booth and starting to climb the hills on the way to Skopje, the transmission exerted its authority. The inside of the bus began to fill with an acrid odor of burning transmission, and the driver was forced to pull over. We were sitting in the middle of the bus, and as soon as it stopped everyone sitting behind us got up and ran to the front - not a particularly reassuring event. The driver continued to struggle with the transmission to no avail, and finally the other bus came upon us and pulled over so we could board it. It was full, and our bus was full, so everyone was jammed in standing in the aisle. I saw an empty seat in the back and heading for it. The woman next to it shook her head. It was raining outside, and, well, it was raining in the bus, too, directly on the seat. Still, it looked better than standing all the way to Skopje smunched between 100 others, so I perched on the edge of the seat enduring an occasional raindrop falling on me. Another time we were stopped by the police 4 times, made to go to the police garage where the bus got an inspection, off-loaded from the bus, reloaded onto the bus, off-loaded again until another bus arrived, and finally allowed to go on. An hour trip took two.

So you get the idea of some of the challenges. This weekend turned out to have a couple of eventful trips. The trip into Skopje was relatively routine - the bus was late because it had been snowing, but I had allowed time for that so arrived for my meeting on time. After the meeting we had a lovely lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Skopje, and rather than hurry, Katie, the other volunteer who was traveling to Debar, and I decided to catch the 5 o'clock combi (some buses are bus size, some are large van size and are called combis). We lounged around, but I was confident we could easily go outside to the main street and catch a cab - there was a cab stand across the street. We went out and started hailing cabs - it was late Friday afternoon on a cold day after a snowstorm. Not a good idea. All the cabs were full, and there were no cabs at the stand. Yikes! The 5 was the last bus to Debar, and if we missed it, well, it would be a disaster. We hailed cab after cab - no one was stopping. Finally, with 10 minutes to get to the station, one stopped and picked us up. Of course, traffic was also dreadful, and we had that horrible feeling of watching the minutes tick off. We called Ellen and Mere and asked them to call the combi to wait for us, and the combi driver called back but Katie, who is very good at Macedonian, couldn't understand him completely. Finally stuck in traffic but close to the station, katie got out and sprinted to the station. I finally got there, paid off the cab driver, and ran around to the station door, only to meet Katie shaking her head - they said the bus was gone. We walked outside and Katie again called the driver, they were waiting for us but where - that's what we couldn't understand. We walked around the back of the station where the exit gate was, and sure enough, there was a combi, but just as we reached it it took off. It had a red light so had to stop, so while I went to ask the gate man at the station about the combi, katie ran to check if the newly departed but stopped combi was ours. Soon, I heard Katie yelling at the top of her lungs, "Caaaaannnnnnndy". Sure enough it was ours, and we made it by the skin of our teeth.

The combi picked up passengers along the way, and pretty soon it too was crammed with people standing in the short aisleway. Katie and I were talking about food, and I mentioned Irish Soda Bread, and we heard a voice above us say, "Irish Soda Bread, that's the best." It was a young man with a heavy accent. I was trying to place it when he told us he was an American from Brooklyn! He had the heaviest Brooklyn accent I have ever heard. He was delightful - he was born in Brooklyn but his family was from Debar and they were visiting because his aunt was sick. He mentioned a couple of times how nice it was to be able to talk to someone in English, how much he missed home, though he was also fluent in Albanian and the Dibar region was his family's home. Such is the immigrant's story.

After enjoying Ellen's hospitality for the night and watching the kids at the spelling bee (they were great!), Ellen, Mere, and Katie took me to the bus station to catch the combi back to Gostivar. It was supposed to be there preparing for its 5:30 departure, but there was no sign of it. Again, we called the company, but couldn't understand what the dispatcher was saying. We asked a nice man standing close by to call for us, and he did (the gist was that the combi should come but the dispatcher wasn't sure where it was), and right when he hung up the combi pulled in. It was snowing heavily in Mavrovo, and he had been held up. He was happy to have a passenger, and I climbed in, along with a couple of other folks. They shortly got out, however, and soon it was only me and the bus driver. He signalled for me to come up and sit by him, so I did. He was Albanian, so we switched from my also non-existence Macedonian to my only a little better Albanian, and chatted our way down the road, talking about families, our children, where we were from, etc.

It was raining as we left Debar, but about 20 kilometers from Mavrovo we hit heavy snow. The roads were slick and I doubt that the tires had much tread. We slipped and slid all over the road, gathered momentum on downhills so we could make it up the uphills. It was gorgeous outside, but the driver and I soon stopped talking because he needed every ounce of concentration to stay on the road. When we finally made it to Mavrovo we met a plow truck, and things were marginally better after that. He asked if I would like to stop and get a cup of coffee and I agreed, but in Mavrovo two new passengers were waiting so the cup of coffee was put off. We made it down the mountain, only to run into a bank of heavy fog which reduced visibility to a few feet, and finally into Gostivar - home........I owe the driver a cup of coffee still - he wanted one still but I was beat and just wanted t get home.

Adventure after adventure - that's part of what makes this so fun. Only a part, though. There are so many things that contribute to making this such a memorable time in my life. Although I always wanted to be in the Peace Corps, I never quite believed it would happen nor did I have any idea what it really would be like.

I wish you all the happiest of holidays. The hard part of service is being away from family and friends, especially at special times like Christmas! May Santa Claus climb up your wall and leave you lots of fabulous gifts. I love you all and miss you. Have a wonderful 2011 with lots of positive adventures yourselves!


  1. oh, I miss my Candy too. love ya b

  2. It's kind of you to say my Macedonian is very good but perhaps the memory of me yelling your name in downtown Skopje will incentivize me to study more and actually get "very good" :).