7-9th August, 2013
“Guess what I’ve goooot!” H’s voice sounds too close and too far away, all at the same time. “Guess what I’ve got? I got it!”
“Oh my god, are you serious?” I’m walking down an endless road in the blazing sun, somewhere in Macedonia. H is 2,600km away in Yerevan, and he just got his UK visa.
Lisa glances over at me with a quizzical expression. She, Sara, Sara’s younger brother and their friend met me in Thessaloniki earlier today. They’ve just come from a Rainbow Gathering, close to the Albanian border. This trip was arranged haphazardly over email with Lisa, as soon as we realised our paths might cross. Now we are five people trying to hitch-hike together, and we all have different agendas.
Lisa wants to hitch around slowly and do lots of walking; Sara wants to go North as fast as possible to get to an Animal Rights Gathering in Austria; I wanted – until this phone call – to hitch around slowly, but do as little walking as possible. Sara’s other friend disappears while decisions are being made, complains about walking, and asks what the plan is all the time. Everything is slow and painstaking.
We decided to hitch-hike to Macedonia. It’s on the way to Austria and none of us have been here before.
All of our drivers are racist. Macedonia being something of a cross-roads, you often don’t know which direction the racism will go. One of our drivers hates the Greeks, one the Macedonians, one the Turks and Albanians. We shift uncomfortably in our seats.
A car stops, interrupting my conversation with H. I promise to call him back later and hang up. The car takes Lisa and I to Veles, where we wait for the others to catch up by a river and a small, empty shop. I ask the man inside how to say ‘hello’ in Macedonian.
“Zdravo”, he tells me, and I recognised the word from my time in Serbia. Later, I will ask the same question of two other people, who each tell me a different word. I examine the tins in the shop and decipher a Cyrillic alphabet with at least one extra letter, ‘j’. It’s a while since I was in a new country, and I’m appreciating its unfamiliarity.
Leaving Lisa waiting by the shop, I stroll over a bridge and cross the river. There are boys playing football and an old, battered running track. A lonely horse stands idly by the river, watching the boys play.
As I return, a car rolls up, our three fiends packed together in the back. We wander back over the bridge together, chatting about our rides. We need to find somewhere to pitch our tents.
We find a small bar called Capri. I elect to sit with a glass of the local beer, free wifi and the bags while the others wander in search of a camping spot. I need to work out a plan about H.
I begin tappety-tapping on my laptop, hunting down options – should I hitch back to the UK with Lisa and meet H at Gatwick? Or hitch back to Istanbul and meet him there? Could I just fly directly from here? My brain begins to ache.
The bustle intensifies. I strain to listen, sipping my Skopsko. This curious language, to my uncultured ears, sounds a mixture of Russian and Greek, with a little Turkish thrown in. It’s also possible, of course, that I’m listening to people speaking those languages.
My friends return to compare camping spot proposals. The prospects are not good, despite this being a tiny city, surrounded by forest. The mountain slopes are mostly too steep and there are no green spaces in town.
After exploring a wasteland littered with used condoms, we ask for advice from a waitress who speaks some English. She describes a fantastic sounding place with a lake and plenty of camping space.
It’s dark already and the roads are empty, so after some mild squabbling, we take a taxi to the lake. The driver takes us all the way around and up to a hotel with a paid camp-site and thumping music. There’s no squabbling this time. We retreat hastily, and the cab takes us back around the other side of the lake, where we discover families and young people camping for free around the river fringe. The aroma of searing meat and melting rubber mingle with the stench of the lake. Turbo-pop thud thuds from car stereos. It’s perfect.
We pitch our tents by a family, who nod at us from their picnic table. We dine on bread, hummus and tinned chickpeas, declining the family barbecue. I’m asleep the instant my sleeping bag is zipped up around me.
It’s a long trek back to the road in the morning. We stop all the cars, but none will take us to the capital. Some ask for money, others are going the wrong way. We split into two teams, one of which clambers up a steep concrete embankment. I opt to be the tortoise, trogging the long way around.
Skopje greets us with flapping sun flags and abundant statues. There are huge wide avenues and enormous squares that separate the solid blocks of white Soviet-style buildings, but the streets are largely empty. I have the impression of a city of giants who were all turned to stone and left there, dotted about.
It seems like only a couple of hours before the shadows are lengthening and the light dims.
A driver told Lisa and I all about the most beautiful place in Macedonia, just outside Skopje, with plenty of space to camp. I’m suspicious when people tell me about the most beautiful place in their country, based on past experiences of getting stranded in an artificial skiing village off-season in Ukraine, and a losing several hours trying to get out of a turbo-pop barbecue in Serbia. Still, we don’t have many options. We take a taxi to the most beautiful place in Macedonia.
We find ourselves enclosed in a gorge. There is a river, as promised, but the river and surrounding trees are full of litter, and the busy path extends from the river edge right over to the steep mountain cliff. There is nowhere, but nowhere, to camp. There are also gangs of youth joyriding, music blaring, and the now familiar waft of burnt trash.
We take turns waiting with bags, or wandering up and down paths as light inches out of the gorge. Lisa and Sara get followed into a dead-end by two shady guys.
I climb over a barrier and wander down a secluded narrow track that runs alongside the river, but well below the busy path. It’s not exactly pleasant, but it is out of site. We pitch tents there amidst a smell of piss and munch through a picnic of bread, hummus, fruit and tinned vegetables.
Tomorrow I’ll head back to Skopje, where I’ll say goodbye to my friends. I’m taking a bus back to Istanbul to meet H, soon to begin the same thirty-six hour bus journey I took the previous week.
A whole world of possibilities has suddenly opened up.