Notes from Macedonia

notes-from-macedonia

Text from July 8, 6:20pm: “I’m sorry Mum, but I went hitchhiking.”

Admittedly, she was less than pleased, however, was glad I was safe and alive. Fresh-faced, 18, and hitchhiking down Macedonia weren’t high on her list of ‘things my daughter should be’.

The journey began in Skopje, a city that I had heard mixed reports about. Some said it was fantastic, and others said it was nothing special. I spent a few days there and met a British guy my age who showed me around. In the main square I admired the obscenely giant Alexander the Great statue. There was a fountain at the bottom of this monstrosity with hundreds of water jets, in between tall-standing lions. One central column rose out of the centre, and was surrounded by warriors in battle. The column towered up and up, and then on top was a circular platform, above which was a huge rearing bronze horse with its rider (Alexander the Great) thrusting a sword into the air. It was playing a sound and light show when I walked past, with the fountains moving to the music. Crazy.

Just a few days later and I was complaining about the complicated bus schedules and ambiguous bus stops to Lake Ohrid, when my friend explained how commonplace hitchhiking was in Eastern Europe, and that I should give it a try. Back in the communist era not many people had cars, so walking along the road that led to your destination and being picked up was very common – and sometimes, the only transport option. The next day, we set off together for Lake Ohrid. Writing on a cardboard sign and sticking my thumb, I felt an excited thrill. I decided to not tell mum until after we arrived safely… We wrote in Macedonian and English, “OHRID / ОХРИД”.

A variety of people picked us up that day, and took us as far as they could go. I learnt so much wedged in the backseat of these people’s cars, and I am forever grateful for this eye-opening experience.  First was an eccentric Albanian man with a van who, despite speaking no English, could communicate extremely well. For translation, he called his wife’s sister’s cousin, and although we got pulled over by police for erratic driving (being let off with a wink), it was a great first experience as a hitchhiker.

Taking us the final stretch from Kichevo to Ohrid were two young guys, eager to play Slavik pop and discuss politics in their beat up matchbox car. I gleaned a lot from the comment “we are not out of socialism” and the contemplative silence that sat afterwards. I mentioned the volume of statues in Skopje, and they grunted in distaste. “Skopje is known for its statues,” they explained, “but not for all the right reasons.” They explained that the government is building hundreds of statues and new buildings in attempt to rebuild/re-image the city, but because of this, it is not spending as much money on its citizens. Hence, the statues have become symbolic of the tensions between the government and its people.

I went on to learn a bit more about the political tensions in Macedonia. A huge volume of leaked phone tapings reveal corruption on the highest level, even involving the cover-up murder of innocent revolutionaries. Their Prime Minister at the time, Nikola Gruevski, was made to stand down through the Przino Agreement mediated by the European Union.

Three women, dubbed the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ of Macedonia, have been appointed to the Special Commissioner’s Office to combat this corruption, with an 18-month deadline to either indict the politicians, or drop the charges. The statues of Skopje now took on a more sinister look.

The boys knew Ohrid well, and eventually left us at a great camping spot. The lake was ethereal, and a little hike to the fortress left me sweaty, but the physical effort wasn’t the only thing that was breathtaking. A mad dash skinny dip left my friend and I feeling jubilant, and on top of the world.

It had been an adventurous and rewarding day. We pitched the tent in the forest in the light of a full moon, close to the fortress but with a view over the lake. I’m constantly redefining my interpretation of the word ‘picturesque’ – and we didn’t have to pay a cent.

Here, all it takes to make a friend is one wise crack, a smile, and the shake of a hand. Friends overseas lead to being included in the best of things with the best of people. Like hitchhiking to a lake in Macedonia! People need people, and travelers get that like no one I’ve ever met. We will part ways tomorrow, me heading South, him heading North. That’s the way it goes.