Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mission completed: road to Macedonia

I have finally come out my hibernation.  Winter hasn't really give me much to write about, as nothing special has been going on.  My days and nights have been filled with too much eating, too much time on Facebook, and my newest obsession: Downton Abbey.  I won't post any spoilers; I have already been a victim of learning of climax events prematurely, but will still give this series huge props; if you get a chance, watch it from the beginning, it is truly fantastic.

Last weekend, we had a Serbian holiday fall on Friday and an American one on Monday, which gave us the wonderful opportunity of getting on the road with our two BFFs and complete "Mission Ex-Yugoslav Republics" by going to Macedonia.  When it comes to traveling, there seems to be three distinct schools of thought at our Embassy; those who want to get the heck out of the Balkans and only visit the "real Europe", those who go to more local, low-key, and outdoorsy places to ski, and/or relax, and those who just don't go anywhere, ever.  Phil and I are a mixture of the first two, and the opposite of the third. We want to go EVERYWHERE, we want to have our Starbucks and chicken fingers, but go to places other people don't even know exist.  That is how we ended up also visiting Albania.  "Why would you go to Albania?", "Because I would never go there if I didn't live here".  As good a reason as any.

A recurrent theme of my life here can be summarized in the Thai phrase made famous by crappy T-shirts sold in night markets to young backpackers- "same, same, but different".  "Do you have this dress in a size 8?" "No, I have this other dress in a size 10, same, same, but different".   The best way I can describe Macedonia is like that, SSBD.  The old town - a mini version of the Sarajevo old town.  The new town -  a smaller, less-graffittied version of Belgrade/Novi Sad/any pedestrian street in Serbia.  I am sure there are major differences to those who actually live here or there (heck- I get offended when people pass NOVA off as DC!), but these are not appreciated by a non-Balkan insider.  At least now I can tell when a cevapi is made with pork or not just by the color and taste.  Small steps.

Skopje, the capital of Macedonia could easily be nicknamed, Sculpture City.  If we lived there, I would probably just have a blog of all their statues, all very cool, some more impressive than others.
Here are some highlights.

The Diver

My buddy


The Diva


Mother Teresa

The non-Wall Street Bull

The shoe-shiner

The next morning headed out to Lake Ohrid, which is supposed to be the gem of Macedonia.  It certainly did not disappoint.

The view from our cabin, awesome; the hike back to our cabin, not so awesome

We got really lucky with the weather, and our day in Ohrid was gorgeous;; blue skies, warm winter sunshine and a crisp breeze to take it all in.
The best part of the trip: the Ohrid Boardwalk

The worst part of the trip was the meal that we had next.  We were super, super hungry and found a place that looked completely legit.  We all ordered something different; beef stew, cabbage rolls, moussaka, and a sausage plate.  Since we were starving, we asked for some bread and ayvar as an appetizer, which we devoured in 2.2 seconds.  Along with the ayvar, the waiter/owner brought out a garlic paste that was literally raw garlic and maybe a bit of butter or oil.  It was so raw it was almost spicy.  Phil started eating it right away, but it was so hard core, that we had to make a pact that we would all eat it or else, we were not going to be able to stand each other afterwards.  Then the beef stew came and it was just a broth with chunks of beef.  Not too shabby, but definitely NOT a stew; then he brought out my moussaka.  My poor, sad moussaka was completely cold and was basically a hunk of ground beef with a layer of quiche or some kind of egg thing on top.  Inedible.  My friend K. was all eyeing that "stew" when her cabbage rolls came, so I decided to forgo the super sad moussaka and take her cabbage rolls as she ordered the stew/soup for herself.  In the meantime, Phil is still eating the raw garlic now by the spoonful, and he and I are feeding the beef chunks of the moussaka to a hungry street kitty.   That's when we realized that Phil never got his sausage plate.  We ask and they were like, "yes, we give you sos plate, garlic".  So I guess they thought he said sauce, and not sausage, so he wasn't getting a meal at all.  By this time, we have been there over an hour, the cabbage rolls have disappeared and the man has shoo-ed the poor kitty away.  Phil orders another beef/stew soup and when the man is not looking, I take the egg part of the moussaka and throw it at the cat like a boomerang.  Our friends are mortified, and Phil can't stop laughing and the cat is looking at me like "bitch, please, you think I'm gonna eat that?"  He refuses to eat it, and we are all cracking up and the egg is sitting there, super obvious, and untouched.  I for one, don't feel bad, because wasting food is a terrible thing, but I get peer pressured into going back and rescuing it to put back on our plate.  So when the man comes for the last time with the stew, he doesn't know that the dish he wants to pass off as moussaka, has been torn apart and refused by a starving street animal.  If this was at home, I would have refused to pay for it, but there was really no point, anymore. Plus we all smelled like garlic and were ready to get out of there, pronto.

The next day we drove into Albania, which is NOT an old Yugoslav Republic, but nevertheless, we were so close, we felt like it wouldn't make sense not to go.  Phil and I think they have the most bad ass flag in the world, so this was also a great photo op.

Right away after crossing the border, things changed.  The roads were instantly full of pot holes, chaos and massive traffic took over the roads and our GPS decided that we were floating in space and not on an actual road.  We decided to go as far as we could, until we were too tired, too scared, or too lost.  One of the distinctive Albanian "attractions" are their bunkers.  During the cold war era, they were built to ensure control of the country in case of enemy attack and apparently there is one for every four Albanians.  According to someone we know who used to live nearby, they are now used as impromptu bathrooms on the road or for the random teenage couple in dire need of some privacy.

One of the bigger bunkers, out of the zillons we saw.
According to Google Maps, their capital, Tirana, was only 2 hours away from Ohrid.  We drove for over two hours and we were not even close to getting there, mostly due to the bad roads and the random goats on the road.  We settled on having lunch in a nearby city, Elbasan, buying a magnet for our fridge collection and heading back to Skopje.  We had a fast and tasty meal and used the squat toilets, took some pictures and headed out.  I think we can count it as checked.

"For Sale" in Albanian.  Classic.


Dusan said...

Nice comments about Albania...

So that's why you decided to ravish Kosovo from us and give it to people who cannot establish order in their own country, but use it as drug and human trafficking corridor, just like Kosovo now.

What bastards you Yanks are, but nobody's candle ever burned until the dawn, always remember that.

Anonymous said...

My family and I will be moving to Belgrade in June so I can attend the university. I just stumbled across your blog while looking for anything interesting on Serbia. I'll have to read more ! But I've wanted to go to Albania even though Serbs (of which I am one) aren't very hospitable towards Albanians.
How are you liking Belgrade so far? Any great tips to pass along concerning places to live, shop, etc.?