Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bummin’ Rides in the Balkans: My Lap Around Lake Ohrid

 “But your face is being so new, and so beautiful.”
Ermal, 22, from Pogradec, Albania

To “hitchhike,” according to, is “to travel by standing on the side of the road and soliciting rides from passing vehicles.”  I was relieved to find that the way I got around Lake Ohrid yesterday did not exactly fit this definition, because I think my friends and family would be upset if they thought I was out hitchhiking through the Balkans.  Technically I wasn't because I never--quote-unquote--“solicited” a ride from anyone.  I was, however, offered rides from strangers and I did, in fact, accept them.  The good news is, I’m still here to tell you that circumnavigating Lake Ohrid is one memorable experience, and hopping in cars with locals along the way just makes it all the more.   Here’s how it went:

Yesterday I woke up with a plan to take a lap around the lake I've now come to adore.  The lake is shared by Macedonia to the north and Albania to the south, and to loop the whole thing, you must cross through four separate border-and-customs posts:  first Macedonia to Albania near Sveti Naum in the southeast, then Albania to Macedonia near Cafasan in the northwest.  I packed my passport with the advance knowledge that traveling on the Albanian side can be tricky transportation-wise.  Some further intelligence-gathering told me that hitching rides with strangers is the norm; otherwise, you’re sure to get swindled by unscrupulous taxi drivers at the borders who just happen to know that they’ve got you over the barrel in the middle of nowhere.

I hate getting taken for rides, so to speak, but I also wouldn't want to end up swimming with the fishes just to save a buck or two, either.  I quizzed my hostel manager, G., as to the existence of any Ted-Bundy equivalents in these parts, and he told me there are no such persons, and that under no circumstances would I be in danger from a stranger.  G. indulged me with my laundry-list of potential hitchhiking-horror questions:  Murder?  Never.  Rape?  Never.  Kidnapping?  No.  Robbery?  Doesn't happen.  In other words, nothing of the sorts of things that happen in America.  I was still a bit skeptical, so I hit the road cautious, but with an open mind.

At 8:30 a.m. I boarded a jam-packed minibus bound for Sveti Naum (sveti meaning saint) where a bunch of peacocks hang out near the centuries-old St. Naum monastery.  For some reason I thought it would be a straight shot down the east side of the lake, but I was wrong.  It turned out to be a harrowing ride along a circuitous mountain route that brought me closer than ever before to throwing up in a moving vehicle.  It didn’t help that at times the minibus meant for 16 passengers was carrying closer to 25, which also made it stifling hot inside.  We did, however, make it to Sveti Naum without toppling off the side of the mountain, so I thank God for that.

I tumbled out of the bus completely green and staggered to the first restaurant I came upon--the Restaurant Ostrovi, which sits on a small, peaceful river.  I ordered a Coke and some plain bread to get the stomach settled and ready for more adventure.  After twenty minutes, I was good as new and onto the monastery.  

At the monastery I found, among the peacocks, a man in the gift shop who immediately became enamored of me when I told him I was American.  Right away he started giving me free things, including a souvenir card of St. Naum himself.  He allowed me to explore the church for free, and provided a “borrowed” guidebook to enhance my experience.  I had bought a candle to light on the way out, and when he saw that I had accidentally bent and broke it, he gave me a new one, gratis, and told me exactly where to place the candle if I wanted “the good life.”  (Of course I do.)

My candle is the tall one on the left.
I bade the man goodbye and went in search of the nearby Macedonian army camp.   I had it on good authority that it might be possible for me to take a shortcut to the Albanian border if I could find a certain accommodating army officer who would let me through a secret gate inside the army camp.  I knew the camp was directly south of the monastery, and in that direction I spotted what looked to be an unmanned guard post.  Next to it was a metal vehicle barrier with a big STOP sign in the middle. 

I pretended not to know better and slipped around the barrier and into the camp.  That's when I heard a voice from behind yell something like Halt! in Macedonian.  I turned around to see a young man dressed in fatigues, motioning for me to report to him.  I approached him and told him, apologetically, that I had heard this was the way to Albania.  He smiled and said “Not possible today, General is here.”  I tried to lay on some American charm--maybe see if there was room to move--but it was a no-go; he wouldn’t budge on account of the General.  (Later I learned that the European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was visiting Macedonia this day, which accounted for the stepped-up security.)

Now I was faced with a 4 kilometer walk up a mountainous road to the Albanian border.  G. had showed it to me on Google Earth, in case I couldn’t get through the army camp, and it looked tough.  But what could I do?  I found the road and started down it. 

Looking back I realized that walking over a desolate mountain path into Albania is the only way to go, especially with your favorite mix of Rolling Stones tunes blasting in your ears.  I think it just increases the coolness factor tenfold when you walk rather than roll into a whole-nother country listening to songs like Monkey Man and Gimme Shelter.  I felt fearless and supremely confident.   At one point I encountered two outlying rifle-toting Macedonian border-patrol guards, and just strutted past them like I owned the place. 

Finally, Albania!
Finally I passed out of Macedonia and into Albania with a decision to make.  I could keep walking until I reached Pogradec, now visible ahead in the distance, or I could take a taxi.  I was still on my mountain high, and plus I’m totally cheap, so I decided to continue walking.  This is when a third option emerged.  I asked a man sitting at the border whether he knew how far away Pogradec was in terms of distance.  He told me seven kilometers.  I stood for a moment trying to calculate that into miles when the man broke in and said:  “My friend.  Two minutes.”  

I took this to mean that his friend would be picking him up in two minutes, and that he was offering me a lift.  I was still fearful of getting in a car with a stranger at this point, so I begged off and told him, “Actually, I like to walk.”  He said, “Okay, you go; I stopping.”

And that’s what happened.  I went, and he stopped.  I heard a car pull up next to me and turned around to see a sweet, shiny black Mercedes whose driver was shoving newspapers and other junk around to make room for me in the backseat.  The man from the border checkpoint opened the back door and gestured for me to get in.

My sweet Mercedes ride.
We made introductions and got to chatting.  I learned that the man at the border, whose name I now forget, is a Macedonian electrical engineer.  The driver, his friend, is Albanian.  The Macedonian told me his wife is a manager for Coca Cola and they have four kids, one of whom lives in New Jersey and is a professional ballerina.  The conversation continued until we reached town, where they pulled over and dropped me on one of the main streets.  I tried to offer them money for their trouble, but my money was no good.  In fact, they practically slapped my hand away like it was the biggest insult in the world.  We said our goodbyes and they sped off.

I hit tourist information where the girl behind the counter advised me to visit a village called Tushemisht, especially if I wanted to taste some good Ohrid trout, which I did.  She explained that the best way for me get there was by frugan (what the Albanians call a shared minibus) and told me where to find one.  Fifteen minutes later I had a seat on a frugan, and that’s when the fawning chaos began. 

Someone on the bus asked “what country?” and when I replied “America,” the passengers went nuts.  America!  America!  people called out; young, old, men, women, boys.  One guy in the passenger seat upfront spoke English, and he translated all the questions and answers that followed.   What city do you live in America?  Why do you visit Albania?  Are you alone?  But then the questions got a bit more personal.

“Are you married?” someone asked.  I looked down at the empty space on my ring finger and told the truth.  “No, I’m not.”  And I don't know why--nerves, I suppose--but I just knee-jerk lied about my status.  “But I have a boyfriend back home,” I told the crowd.  The driver must not have heard or understood this, because he told the young guy sitting next to him upfront to tell me that he has a son for me.  I thought that was sweet and asked, out of curiosity, “how old is his son?”

The young translator got the answer from the driver and said “30,” while holding up three fingers on one hand and fashioning a zero with the other.  I said, “well I think I’d be a little too old for him anyway.”  The kid looked deeply puzzled by what I said, so I elaborated.

“I’m 40,” I revealed, holding up four fingers on one hand and making a zero with the other.  He repeated this to the others and once again the bus erupted.  I couldn’t understand what was being said.  Finally, the young guy looked at me with genuine surprise and said, “But your face is being so new, and so beautiful.”   I turned and saw others examining my face and nodding in agreement.  I blushed and thanked everyone profusely.  Needless to say, at this point, I was loving Albania.

And there’s more.  When we arrived at our destination, a fight broke out between two local waiters on their way to work who wanted to first buy me coffee, and the older woman sitting next to me who wanted to take me home with her.  I thought it would be interesting to meet the woman's family, but one of the waiters was the same kid who said I was beautiful--so I was torn.  I told them I would be happy to do either and left it up to them.  At the end of a spirited discussion, the woman smiled and gestured for me to go with the men.  The woman and I gave each other a little half-hug and then said goodbye.

The two guys brought me to a nearby restaurant where one of them also works.  I wanted only coffee, but they insisted I share a glass of Albanian wine too.  We sat for close to forty-five minutes, talking about our countries and toasting to friendship.  At one point they took me across the street to show me a stone hearth where traditional Albanian bread is made, and soon the bartender, “the Boss,” and the head chef (a woman), all showed up for a meet-and-greet with the American woman in town.  

My new friends, Ermal and Rondi
The boy who called me beautiful—Ermal is his name, I learned--had to leave for work in a nearby restaurant, so we said goodbye with cheek kisses.  The other guy, Rondi, changed into his waiter’s outfit, and served me lunch there in his restaurant.  What followed was one of the most delectable pieces of fish I have ever wrapped my lips around, accompanied by some kind of Albanian vegetable pie that was out of this world.  The crew insisted that I pay only for the fish—which was $5.50 from head to tail, literally—and the rest was on the house.

I finished my meal and got up to say goodbye and thank everyone for the hospitality.  There was more kissing, and hugging, and handshaking, and I left feeling very special. 

Now I needed to return to Pogradec, so I asked a woman standing in front of a nearby food stall where I might find a frugan back to town.  She pointed to a man standing by a nondescript SUV and said “He is taxi, he can take you.”

By now I was tired, so I agreed to pay a little more to get on my way.  We negotiated a price for the 20 minute ride (about two bucks) and on the way, the man, who didn’t speak much English, tried to ask where I was going next.  I drew him a picture of the lake and pointed at the place where I wanted to cross the Albanian border on the west side.  Soon we negotiated what I knew to be a fair price, and after another brief venture into Pogradec, we met again for the ride back to Macedonia.

Bledi, my taxi driver and friend.

We couldn’t talk much, but we found ways to communicate by pointing and gesturing during the ride through fishing villages and mountain passes.  We kept passing men on the side of the road holding out large eels for sale and it made him laugh every time I shrieked at seeing one.  Finally we arrived at the border.  He gave me his phone number should I ever be back around that way, and I gave him my leftover traditional pie from lunch, for which he was grateful.  Before I got out he told me that I should pay no more than 5 Euro to taxi from the Albanian border back to Struga.

Of course the first taxi driver I met told me it would cost 20 Euro, or four times the amount of what it should cost.  I tried bargaining, but he was unreasonable, thinking he had me trapped.  “Forget that,” I said, “I’ll walk.”  And I turned and walked away.

As the border guard was checking my passport, I noticed the vehicle waiting next was an SUV containing a man, woman, and two small children.  There seemed to be room in the back, considering the toddler was riding on the mom’s lap and the vehicle contained no carseats.

Now, this is where you have to pay careful attention to see that I didn’t actually “solicit” a ride and therefore hitchhike.  I approached the car and addressed the woman (who, I learned from the husband standing next to me, speaks English): “Excuse me,” I said, “can you tell me, is it safe for a woman traveling alone to accept a ride to Struga from here?”  She smiled and said, “No problem.”

Now, I didn’t know if this meant “no problem; it’s safe,” or “no problem; you can come with us.”   I figured the latter, but I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I started walking down the highway while the border officer checked their passports.  Soon I heard a car stop on the gravel behind and turned to see the family gesturing for me to get inside.  I hopped in.

The woman’s name is Julianne, and she is an Albanian elementary teacher.  Her husband, Ergon, was driving and I gathered from the way the conversation went that he didn’t speak English.  The boy on Julianne’s lap is named R.B., and is 2 years and 3 months old.  R.B. kept looking back at me shyly, confused apparently as to why suddenly there was a strange woman in his backseat speaking a different language.  The sweet little girl, Dea, is 6, and for most of the ride she stared at me with a fascinated smile.

It turned out that the family was going to Ohrid for some shopping, which is what many Albanians do on the weekend on account of the better prices and selection in Macedonia.  They offered to take me all the way back to Ohrid, and of course I accepted gratefully.  They parked the car near my hostel in the city center and allowed me to take a family photo.  Again I tried to offer money, and again I was rebuffed vehemently.  We all shook hands goodbye, including little R.B.

Soon I was back at the hostel after a long, wondrous day around the lake.  On the way to my bed for a nap, I took a look into the mirror to see what Ermal had seen back on the frugan.  I think I saw it too, and it made me smile.