All those who have travelled to an area within the Balkans know, that the scenery is second to none and that the weather always tries its best to stay on your side. All the people are welcoming, beautiful scenery there for you to admire, and all the time in the world feels at your disposal. That being said about travelling to one area; try, if you will, to imagine the horrors of attempting to travel through the Balkans. Or at least, a bloody great big chunk of it.
For a brief respite from the streets of Brčko, a group of us decided to go a mini-vacation. Eleonore, an emotionally and generally intelligent artist who volunteered with me at the NGO; Maja, a brilliant psychology student and the dashingly lovely person I am dating; and me. You all know me. Right? Ben? From TooFewSteps? Yeah, the guy who writes infrequently and constantly apologizes for it. . .
After a few weeks of planning and my pretty shitty money woes, we all decided to travel a country or two south to Ohrid, Macedonia. Known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans as it is home to over three hundred and sixty churches. We were not allured by the houses of Gods; more for the home of the fish. Lake Ohrid spans 150sqf miles and truly dons the look of an ocean, right there, in the middle of a country.
The journey was a daunting one. It took sixteen hours and three buses in total to get there. As avid readers of this blog know; I love me a bus journey, but these where some of the worst I’ve ever been on.
Easy. Nice three hour or so journey on a relatively clean bus. The bus driving team that I seem to get every time I travel to Serbia were at the helm. Jelen in one hand and the wheel in the other, and a sweater vest wearing gargoyle of a man who collects the tickets. Love those guys.
El, Maj, and I spent this leg just shooting the shit. Talking about differences in educational experiences of our high school days and comparing cultures. When we arrived in Belgrade, we stopped off at the Corner Pub – which I highly recommend if you are short of things to do during a stopover in the city. A beer to quel the rumble of our stomachs and a tinkle break later, the next bus awaited.
This was the longest run of the journey at around eleven hours. We slept when we could and woke when we needed to. Mostly at the Serbian-Macedonian border. Sometimes you are lucky in hay the border police are active working, decent employers of the state, and embark on the bus to check your passports, take them away, stamp them in a border office, and return them to you personally. This had been the practic of the Bosnian-Serbian border. It was not the practice of the Serbian-Macedonian border.
Deep in the night, as most everyone on the bus but the driver and myself were sleeping softly, we arrived at the border and were all ushered off into the cold night to personally bring out passports and identification cards to the border office windows. We were handed the misfortune of lazy border patrol officials.
All was fine save a drunk being on the bus, trying his damndest to bring hard liquors into the country. This was the story we pieced together through the chatter of cold teeth, all the other passengers huddled around one another for warmth and word on what was happening.
The drunk crossed the border with the rest of us. We all made it to Skopje, where we had to change buses again (unbeknownst to us). In clambering onto our new bus I realized that my passport was still in my headrest on the other bus. I got it back and came back on the bus to see the old drunk sniggering at me. Or just to himself. But either way, it cut deep.
Skopje – Ohrid
The Skopje to Ohrid bus was by far our least favorite bus ride, since all bus rides began. A group of college students were crammed onto the bus and one of them had the gaul to sit on me up till his stop. His clothes reeked of sweat and his smirk wreaked havoc on my mind. Very much wanted to punch him, but I needed to maintain the high ground.
After the students had gone, it was smooth sailings – in a manner of speaking. The roads were cracked and crumbling too much for any of us to grab a wink of sleep. Thankfully we came to Ohrid station quickly, jumped from the bus straight into a taxi to get to our AirB’n’B. The driver took a scenic route and the view made up for the journey.