Trip Start Jul 04, 2012
Trip End Aug 24, 2012

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Flag of Macedonia  ,
Sunday, August 19, 2012

Riding the bus, winding through the switchback roads that lead up and up into mountainous Macedonia, would have probably been more tedious had I not met a fellow backpacker by the name of Yuko.  She's Japanese, traveling alone and an older backpacker like me. Just when I think I’m well traveled I meet someone like her.    

Swapping travel stories is what you do on the road, and it’s rare for me to find someone that can top me in terms of travel experiences. Yuko was certainly the exception. I found myself in a game of traveler one-upmanship that I was gradually losing when I threw down the Zimbabwe trump card that usually drops a jaw.

Her reply, 'Yes, I went to Zimbabwe, too. I was camping most of the time, and some people took my shoes.’

She had me beat. I’ve done a lot but this woman had sold her soul to the travel gods, and the fact that she traveled on her own, which is much harder for a woman, made it all the more impressive. I told her as much.

It wasn’t until we arrived at our first rest stop that I realized how Yuko’s travels came at a cost.  Unlike me, she has not held down a full time job for years. She simply picks up work whenever she can, usually in 3 to 4 month stints, and saves as much as possible in order to fund the next trip.  Once the money runs out, the trip is over.

‘Don’t you worry about savings?’ I asked.

‘I don’t have any savings. I’m broke.’

It was pretty evident that her travel time was drawing to a close. Fretting everything from the one euro charge to put a bag in the luggage compartment to the roughly 50 cents it cost to use the toilet, she was clearly pinching pennies.  After buying a few snacks for the bus I gave her the last of my Albanian lekes (around 2$) and she was completely ecstatic about it.

Meeting someone like her, who is roughly the same age and has the same passion for travel that I do, made me realize that I have done a pretty good job of striking a balance. When I was younger I wanted to do more or less what Yuko is doing, and as an English teacher it was entirely possible. However, I would likely be broke or in debt if I had chosen that path. Instead, I have done an awful lot of traveling, though perhaps not quite as much as I would have liked, and yet, I still have money in the bank and don’t find myself looking for a tree to pee behind because I don’t want to pay the toilet fee.

The first stop in Macedonia was a town called Ohrid, which sits on the shore of Lake Ohrid. It’s a popular vacation spot for many a Macedonian and it made for a nice place to relax for a few days. The lake was pretty, but I think the real highlight for me was my accommodation. For 30 euros a night I had a fantastic room right on the lakefront, complete with a huge balcony overlooking the lake and a private swimming area. It was a real bargain and made me feel like I was really on vacation.

From Ohrid I made my way to Skopje, the capital, and was wowed by the many giant statues they have there that celebrate Macedonia’s ancient history. The most impressive one sits in the center of the Plaza of Macedonia where you’ll see a gigantic statue of Alexander the Great on horseback with multi-colored fountains at its base.

Skopje is very near to the border with the controversial ‘country’ of Kosovo. Controversial because many will argue whether it is, in fact, a country at all. I was only about 2 hours away from Prishtina, the controversial capital, so I decided to make a day trip out there.

It turned out to be a worthwhile trip. Kosovo had the raggedy look that I expected to find in Albania but didn’t. Poverty was rearing its ugly head in the form of rundown buildings and roads.  Not surprising when you consider the Kosovo War took place in the late 90’s, and the region declared independence from Serbia only four short years ago. I got the biggest kick out of all the Bill Clinton hero worship that was on display. Clinton made a big push for joining the conflict for humanitarian reasons when Slobadan Milsovic was accused of ‘ethnic cleansing’.  The city of Prishtina has certainly done a lot to honor Clinton with its Bill Clinton Boulevard, Bill Clinton statue and countless businesses named after him; there were even several shops named Hillary.

Returning to Skopje after a very long day, I turned in early for the long bus ride to Bulgaria, the last country on this trip.

Bulgaria is next…
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