Easy Ohrid

I arrived in Ohrid Macedonia in the middle of the night on the only bus to be had from Sofia. The schedule told me I’d get in around 5am. The owner of my Airbnb rental had said he was out of town but could send his friend with the key to fetch me at 7:00 if I could wait that long. What the heck, I thought, it will be daylight by then, I can just read my book while I wait. When you travel and use public transportation you get used to waiting on one end or the other, and two hours is nothing compared to what I typically wait when flying.

Whether the schedule was wrong or my bus driver was on a mission I can’t say. It didn’t feel like we were moving unusually fast, though come to think of it there were a hell of a lot of bumps that almost sent me flying from my attempt at a sideways prone position across the two seats at my disposal to the floor in front of me. In any case he rolled in to the bus station in Ohrid at not quite 2am by my watch. I quickly realized we were in an earlier time zone to boot, so it was actually 1am – six hours before my ride was due to show up and at least 3-4 hours before daybreak. I had no cell phone service since my Bulgarian SIM card didn’t cover Macedonia, even though I had loads of data left, so I could neither call, text nor email the host to beg him to send his friend earlier, if I could even reach him; I had no Macedonian denar with which to pay a taxi to take me to the apartment, and no key to enter it even if I did; and if I somehow managed to find and get to a hotel that was still taking guests at this hour, what would I do if I couldn’t get in touch with my host in time for him to stop his friend from showing up at the station at 7? Take another taxi back to the bus station at 6:30 or so? It appeared I was stuck there.

Once the few taxi drivers who had shown up to meet the wee-hours bus departed (they knew if I didn’t), I found a dark corner outside the bus station (locked up tight of course) and against a small cafe. I reasoned that I didn’t want to draw attention to my presence, not so much because I was worried about my personal safety, but because I had visions of the police harassing me for loitering or something equally harmless, and as a foreigner without the the ability to communicate with them, it just didn’t seem wise to me to advertise the fact that I was using a public place as a makeshift campsite. Do they allow ‘wild camping’ in Macedonia, and does the sidewalk within the city limits count? I had no idea. I plopped my pack into the corner, and positioned the two potted fir trees that decorated the sidewalk strategically in front and to the side of it. Then I squeezed in between the two pots and the wall and leaned back against my pack, with my helmet and food bag against the wall and out of sight.

This is how I remained for the next 3 1/2 hours, shifting occasionally on the cold hard ground, not daring to close my eyes as I listened to passing cars and dogs, hoping that the former wouldn’t catch me in their headlights and decide to investigate or report me to the authorities, nor the latter catch a whiff of my food (do street dogs consider dry pasta, walnuts, olive oil, ouzo and muesli food?) and try to relieve me of it. Not that I would have been able to sleep if I had felt comfortable closing my eyes. I wish I were one of those people who can sleep anywhere, or any time. Eventually the sky began to lighten and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen the sun rise.

Ohrid turns out to be a lovely, very affordable (see example costs below) place to spend a week. In spite of this there are relatively few tourists here, at least this early in the season, and to my untrained ear anyway, the vast majority of them seem to speak the same, or a similar Slavic language, as the Macedonians. Yet here, as in Sofia, many of the younger people speak English quite well. I’ve also noticed the vendors at the stalls selling souvenirs don’t call out to passers-by to come and inspect (buy) their wares, and the taxi drivers, both land and water, are likewise not aggressive in seeking fares. It’s a very walkable town, it looks and feels safe throughout, and the pace is calmer and more sedate than anywhere else I’ve been this spring.

Like so many old cities and towns in Europe, Ohrid has an abundance of churches, monasteries and basilicas. I find no value in them as houses of worship, but they certainly have great historical significance and are often beautiful examples of centuries old architecture, and I’m amazed at how well-preserved they are; however they strongly resemble one another, at least from the outside, so it’s easy as you walk around the town to mistake one for the other if, like me, you do not read the Cyrillic alphabet.

A fortress, disintegrated in places and restored in others, as well as an “antique theatre” – the only Hellenistic theater in Macedonia – are also draws for many people. Beyond the telling of a story if you are trained to read it (I’m not), structures like this offer me a sense of personal insignificance and anonymity in the face of their great age, the same way visiting faraway places and spending time in wilderness areas does. Their presence reminds me that in the space of time and our vast universe I am but an infinitesimal speck, my life meaningless, and that brings me comfort for some reason when I think about my son’s death. We are all of us here for but a blink of an eye, and while some blinks are shorter than others, they are all just blinks, and the universe cares not one whit more or less for any of its creatures than it does for any other. In one way or another we are all – animal, vegetable, mineral – products of what has come before us as well as fodder for what comes after, our sense of individual purpose and importance a human artifact, existing solely within the context of our minds and nullified by the acts of birth and death. We contribute to or detract from the world, leaving it better or worse not by ourselves but collectively, one blink at a time.

Yesterday I walked around part of Lake Ohrid (estimated to be between 2-3 million years old), past a reedy, marshy area where the chirping sound coming from a network of large greenish-grey frogs was so loud many people walking by, alone or with companions and engaged in conversation slowed then gravitated to the edge of the walkway to silently observe the source of the noise. I’d call it music but it wasn’t exactly melodic, more like a bunch of off-key would be singers gotten together to form their own second rate choir. The number of different sounds in pitch, frequency and duration was fascinating, the singers scattered throughout the tall grasses in the muddy water, blending in so well you really had to look hard to catch their movement and see them. I wondered what they were saying to each other.

Farther down the lake the path changed from paved to gravel then dirt, the numbers of people dwindling correspondingly. Soon I was the only person coming or going in sight, clusters of colorful wildflowers on either side of me and birds singing in the trees overhead. I saw a raven and was reminded of something I learned recently watching Viasat Nature, a channel I’d never heard of since I so rarely watch television, but stumbled upon in this well-equipped Ohrid apartment I’ve rented; that ravens and crows are so intelligent they are considered the primates of the bird family and that there is a subspecies, the Caledonian Crow, members of which have been observed not just using objects in their environment as tools but actually inventing tools to accomplish a specific task, namely retrieving food from tight places. Soon it started to rain, as it has done each day but one since I got here. I kept walking. I don’t know when I got comfortable walking, even hiking, in the rain – somewhere between the Camino and Banff National Park I suppose – but I no longer see it as an impediment to continuing to move. This isn’t to say I look outside when it’s pouring down rain and think, right, let’s go for a walk! Just that if I’m already out there, I don’t duck for cover the way I once might have.

Last night I watched a program that featured the place of guide dogs and other animals in the lives of people with disabilities ranging from diabetes and blindness to PTSD. I recall my grief counselor telling me that I would qualify for an assistance animal and again, as I did when she told me this, I wonder if this is something I should seriously consider. But how do you travel internationally with a dog or other animal to consider? For years before motherhood my traveling companion was a three-legged orange tabby cat named Boo Radley, with whom I covered the width of the United States no less than 3 times; but that was domestic travel for which neither he nor I needed papers or shots. Taking an animal with you when crossing borders means facing stringent customs and immigration regulations and incumbent costs, including quarantine in some places. Even if that weren’t the case, when it takes all your energy to take care of yourself, where do you find the energy to care for a dependent? It hardly seems do-able. A few months ago I heard about a woman who is riding her horse around the world, a pursuit which I find immensely intriguing and appealing; we’ve emailed back and forth a few times but I’ve yet to get into the nitty gritty with her.

Example costs in Ohrid: accommodation in private 1 bedroom apartment in building with elevator, within 10 minutes walking distance of town center: $22/night. Dinner of falafel, pita, humus and vegetables: $3. Loaf of whole grain bread from bakery: 45 cents. Piece of cake from bakery: 75 cents. Bottle of local red wine: $2. Fresh fruits and vegetables at the open air market (“bazaar”): cheap, cheap, cheap.

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