Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mac Attack

I just got back today from a fantastic trip to Macedonia. I started out by catching an afternoon bus to Skopje. The border crossing was a bit interesting as a guard on the Macedonian side informed me that the medical insurance cards that I presented to him were unacceptable, and I would be needing to purchase insurance for my stay. It sounded like a scam to get three euro out of me, but I didn't give the money directly to him. Rather, I gave it to a sleepy guy in another building, and I received a few papers saying I now had health insurance for six days in Macedonia. Whatever.
The rest of the journey went without incident, and I arrived in Skopje around 9:00 p.m. I tried to send a text to the guy I was staying with only to find that my cell phone refused to work, so I set about trying to get some funds and use a pay phone. It turned out that the pay phone only accepted a certain kind of phone card, so I had to go and find one of those. It's a good thing that Macedonian and Bulgarian languages are so similar. I was finally able to contact my host and then take an overpriced, but entertaining, cab ride to his place.
My host, Igor, was my first couchsurfing experience. The idea of couchsurfing is to connect travelers with local communities, which will hopefully lead to an increase in cultural understanding. In basic terms, however, it's a chance to crash on a stranger's couch. It sounds a little scary, but I had only heard good things about couchsurfing. The site tries to minimize risk to its users, but one just never knows. I was nervous for several reasons. That being said, Igor was a fantastic host. I started asking him right away about former Yugoslavia and tried to figure out how Macedonia and Bulgaria were similar. He patiently answered my questions to the best of his ability. His mom made macaroni for me and put a spicy ketchup and oregano on top. They also gave me juice, coffee, and some chocolate wafers. I gave them a bottle of Bulgarian wine.
The next day, sleet was falling, but that didn't keep Igor from showing me around Skopje. We went to the old part of town, saw some mosques, saw some bazaars, saw some cultural objects, saw some malls, etc. We had some lunch, and I ate some beans in a traditional, Macedonian dish. We were kind of at a loss for things to do, but we didn't want to give up and go back. We tried to go bowling, but they were closed. We ended up going to an art gallery. Then we went for coffee. While at coffee, we ran into another friend of his who was having coffee with a Canadian couchsurfer. We then walked around with them. We had an interesting tour of a mosque and stumbled on a Macedonian wedding at an Orthodox Church.
Wet and cold, we retreated back to his place where I had a lovely conversation with his father. As I mentioned, Macedonian and Bulgarian are very similar. At first, the father thought I was Bulgarian. There were only a few sentences that I had to ask him to repeat so as to understand them. He shared his wine with me, and there was pizza to eat as well. I sat and warmed myself by the stove while Igor tried drying our sneakers by rotating them around in the oven.
Later that night, we went out again for a meeting with The Hospitality Club, which is basically the same concept as couchsurfing. There were drinks and people dancing tango. I met a lot of interesting people (there was a sweet, Hungarian girl who latched onto me for a bit) who spoke amazing English, and I enviously observed the tango dancers. We were invited out to a dance club, but Igor had other plans for the evening, and I tagged along with him.
We ended up going to a rock club and meeting up with the friend we had run into earlier in the day. We didn't stay there long, however, because Igor had some other friends that he wanted to hang out with, so we left and went to a club with harder rock. Igor's friends were friendly and great. They seemed to have a lot of Macedonian pride. I was told that it was better to speak English with them, and I was asked which was better: Bulgaria or Macedonia? I responded by saying I'd spent the last three years in Bulgaria and the last day in Macedonia. "Okay, okay, but we have better beer, right?" I conceded that their beer was better. I don't care much for beer anyway. They responded by getting us three rounds of tequila shots. "I think your friends are trying to get me drunk," I told Igor. He just laughed.
It was a long day. We got back to his place at about 3:30 a.m., and then we stayed up talking until about 6 a.m.
Four hours later, we were up and eating breakfast. Igor asked me if I'd like to go and check out an aqueduct nearby. I agreed, and we walked a few kilometers out to go see it. I walked on top of the aqueduct, but Igor was a bit more cautious. We chatted there a bit longer, and then we went back to his place. I told him that I wanted to catch the 3:30 p.m. bus to Ohrid, but he convinced me to take a later one. I stayed and ate with his family, and then it turned out that he took me to the bus station right after the 4:30 had left. I ended up having to wait until 6:30 to catch the last bus to Ohrid. I wasn't too happy about that, but it could have been worse.
Ohrid was awesome. Once I got into town, I caught a taxi to my next couchsurfing destination: a Peace Corps Volunteer's residence. The only problem was, I wasn't exactly sure where I was going. I gave the taxi driver the directions that I had, but I couldn't figure out where her house was from there. He didn't want me to get stuck somewhere, so we ended up calling her. She appeared within a few minutes and even covered my fare when I didn't have small change.
I hung out that evening with her and another PCV. We stayed up late comparing PC Macedonia and PC Bulgaria stories. The next day, I got up and Karen, my host, made me coffee. She also gave me a detailed itinerary of what to see while in Ohrid. I grabbed my things and set out for some alone time.
Ohrid was absolutely beautiful. First, there's the gorgeous, clear lake that's shared by Albania. In addition to this, you can run into historical beauty just about every five minutes. I saw many beautiful churches, an amphitheater, a fortress, and old city walls. I snuck into the "closed" fortress when no one was around, and I even walked through an excavation site. There were lush trees and snow-covered mountains. It was amazing. I'm including a picture here, but I wish I could include tons more. There were so many beautiful sights.
In the afternoon, I went for a fabulous lunch with the two PCVs. The waiter kept bringing us traditional food to sample - telling us that it was on him. We also met a friendly English couple who had recently moved to Ohrid. After a few hours of conversation in the restaurant, Karen and I went to get some coffee. We then went back to her place so she could get some work done, and I could watch CNN.
The next morning, I got up and hit a few more sites in Ohrid. Then Karen and I went to another town on the lake called Struga. She wanted to pick up some items from a COS-ing volunteer there, and she had a meeting with a colleague. I had planned to visit some cave churches and then continue on to another town where I could catch a bus back to Sofia. All those plans fell through. Her colleague was busy with another project, and I found out that the bus schedules weren't conducive to my plans. We ended up getting some lunch and walking around Struga. We then went back to Ohrid. She and her colleague did some project development while I was happy to read/doze on the couch.
That evening I caught an overnight bus back to Sofia. There were no problems at the border, and I arrived here at about 6:00 a.m. this morning. I was able to get back to Greg's before he left for school, and I crashed for several hours on the couch. It was snowing today in Sofia, and I made a few calls to my former colleagues. Ani had a birthday the other day, and Reneta's birthday was today. I might be seeing Yanko on Friday. My former landlady, Margarita, asked if I would be coming back for a visit while I was here. Angel's supposed to be coming out to Sofia tomorrow. I miss those guys. Otherwise, part of me still wishes I were in Macedonia.

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