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Return to Tourism – Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

Traveling can be a little surreal sometimes.

Like when you wake up in a city and you can’t remember where you are.

Or when you meet a group of people and then see them in another country a month later.

Or when you find yourself in the apartment of a 50-year-old tour guide with hippies from around Europe, eating soup they have made from scratch after picking wildlife from the surrounding hills, watching one play guitar and crunching stocking feet on the shells of nuts and dried fruit skins in attempt to make sand that will cover the apartment.

Last night was the latter.

The rest of my time in Tirana was, thankfully, uneventful. I made it back to the city, wandered around and toured the art museum (again, the only person) and ate dinner as the only person in a restaurant with a full place setting and fancy dishes, with slightly worn tableclothes and a waiter that seemed surprised someone was actually eating out (seriously, people do not eat out in the Balkans except for tourists…and when there are no tourists….maybe that is why the locals are all so thin???)

The next morning I made it to the bus, where only one of the people from the previous day turned up. I wonder what happened to all the others?

Three middle-aged ladies made motions asking me if I had a ticket yet – I did not, having been told I could buy one on the bus – and one comandeered my elbow, lifting it up like I would expect my mother to if I was a small child and I was being made to walk faster, and dragged me across the street, through the cars, screeching proudly, ‘My sister! American embassy!’ I have no idea if her sister was working at the embassy, or lived in America, or simply hung out at the Albanian embassy waiting for a visa, and did not get to ask, since that was the extent of her English. Still, the three of them were able to convey that I could get my ticket beforehand at the office.

Back at the bus, the ride was uneventful, except for my realization that we were driving an hour in the OPPOSITE direction to pick up people before heading to the border. Did they not think to start the bus in Durres, and THEN go to Tirana and continue onto the boarder? Boggled. The bus filled up with kids heading across the border to return home from boarding school and I moved next to one of the women at her insistance as some haggard-looking men got on bored. About thirty minutes from the border, we stopped for half an hour at a cafe. It was maddening for me, since I was getting off right after the border, and I wondered about people eating right before we got on the bus to climb into the hills. Unfortunately, my fears bore fruit as the woman next to me got violently ill all over the seats, aisle, and her friend’s shoes. I gave them the two litres of water I had with me to clean up and to rinse her mouth, and tried not to wrinkle my nose as she handed one of the bottles back to me, half full.

The border crossing was notable only because it took SO LONG. In the end, I did a 150 km drive (225 with the travels to Durres) in a massive SIX HOURS. I got off at my stop, along with the women, and was unsurprised to learn that I would need to take a $10 taxi the last 14 km to the city, despite the fact my guidebook said buses ran every 15 minutes to and from the cities. Another bus station, perhaps.

My driver dropped me off in front of the old bus station, at a tourism office. The woman inside was able to find me a room for 400 dinars, 440 with ‘tourist tax’, in the room above, about 200 meters from the main pedestrian walkway and .5 km from the walled Old Town, with the massive Lake Ohrid even closer. This $9 room with a sweet old granny, Petra, sounded much better than the $25 apartment she offered me.

I met my hosts, dropped down my bags and set off to explore the city, meandering around the main street and shaking my head at the amazingly low prices – such as $40 for designer jeans (Diesel, Versace, etc.), $3 for decent wine, $2 for handmade earrings, etc.

I found my way into an old papermaking shop, with a Gutenburg press, one of 7 in the world and three in Europe (interestingly, one of the other ones is in Bled, Slovenia). The teenaged boy there gave me his speech and demonstration and I bought a few small cards. Outside, I opened up my LP to see where I was, when a made in his 50s approached me. ‘Ah, you are a tourist? I see, Eastern Europe. I am not in this edition, I am in the newer one. Would you like a tour of the city? ‘ He had broken off from his friends to give me his speech. They were on the way to his apartment to make soup, and maybe I could join them later? His tour would be about an hour, and was $10 or so. I stopped protesting and thought to myself, what the hell. It would do me some good to learn some history about the city – and off we went.

Slavian, I would quickly learn, was a Christian ‘philosopher’ who mixes a sort of Zen Buddhism with a sort of free love and peace vibe and a reverence for Christ. As a philosopher, he was living off of 15 euros a month, provided by the government, in the apartment he has lived in more or less his whole life, besides a 7-year stint in Germany and travels that included hitchiking through northern Africa, including Algeria, in 1991. He supplements his income working as a tourist guide and putting up hippies in his place for 3 euros a night, although, he was quick to assure me that money was of little importance to him, and really, who needs those trappings. Bemused, I later decided it was him – he just didn’t want to pay for it.

All that aside, he lead me through Ohrid’s historical sites, intermixing historical fact and fiction, painting pictures of kings going to their private lakeside beaches, now covered with trash, and the rise of Christian slaughters in the theatre. Ohrid was established 2500 years ago and, he proudly tells me, is the oldest area in the world besides Africa. I do not challenge him on this fact (a theme for the evening, as he boasted his superior knowledge of such things and mixed them with random incoherent musings, looking for a random challenger on various topics. It was an offering none of which his friends accepted, and I only halfhartedly as he looked across the table and fixed his eyes at me, narrowing them behind his glasses).

At the conclusion of our tour, I paid him and we headed off to pick up the bottle of wine he suggested I bring to dinner. At the grocery store were two of his friends, the ones supposedly making the soup. Catherine was from Crete, and had met Illka in Turkey when she was working there as a restoration painter. Illka was, unsurprisingly, an artist. Catherine helped him, she said, with his creations, such as the homemmade leather shoes they were both wearing. Slavian insisted on carrying the wine…I later realized this made it look as if he had bought it for the group.

We walked to Slavian’s apartment where another artist was waiting. I do not recall his name, unfortuantely, so lets call him Orrin, like the city. The door opened and smelled of weed. Slavian noticed it too, “Where’s the joint! Where’s the joint!” he squealled. Orrin smiled like the cat with the canary. As I removed my shoes, I spotted that the floor was covered with shells – for three years, Slavian had been taking the peals of oranges and lemons and drying them, throwing them on the floor. The rest were shells of almonds and other nuts. However, what my mother (and indeed, my inside voice) would call a mess only took up about 20% of the floor. It is a work in progress, he informed me.

Trying not to be too put off, I walked gingerly to a chair that had long since lost its back near the kitchen table. I must admit that the next two hours were not that exciting…I made small talk with Catherine and shook my head at Illka, who spoke incoherently with a fast, high pitch mumble, making me think of Beaker from Sesame Street. I do not think I understood a single word he said the entire evening (which, granted, was not much), but I am left with the impression of them as wonderfully kind. The highlight of the evening was the neddle soup with potatos, garlic, and various other plants. Before it was ready, we enjoyed fresh-picked wild grapes, apples and plums the size of cherry tomatos and a similar color, which were incredibly sweet. Another friend joined the fray, as Slavian became even more animated and I grew increasingly tired. As this friend began to play the guitar and Illka went to pull out his violin, I bid my goodbyes and walked the 50 m to my apartment, shaking my head and thinking that the whole situation reminded me vaguely of Portland.



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-2 responses to “Return to Tourism – Lake Ohrid, Macedonia”

  1. algeria embassy

    I Googled for something completely different, but found your page…and have to say thanks. nice read.

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