Strangers in Strange Places

At 5am sharp my alarm begins to chime, gently bringing me out of the only three hours of sleep I had had in the past 36 hours.  I slowly rise to turn off the music and silently debate whether or not I am physically capable of making it through another long, and this time physically strenuous, day.  Two days prior at 5pm I had boarded a bus from the south of Macedonia to take me to northern capital of Skopje.  As things tend to go with transportation and me, the bus broke down two thirds of the drive through and the 14 other passengers and I were left lounging about outside of the bus while the bus driver stood on the opposite side of the street and tried to flag down other buses.  I’m not sure what he truly wanted to achieve since he was standing only 5 meters before the turn-in to the gas station – not nearly enough distance for a bus to slow down in time to stop and give us help.  The other passengers chatted away but their voices were like humming bees.  The Macedonian language was becoming easier and easier to understand after spending two weeks in the country (of course building off of what I know in Slovene), but this was the end of my trip and I was just not mentally willing to listen to and attempt to understand the conversations going on at that point.  It was just a game of patience….one which was about to become much longer than I anticipated.

After nearly an hour of waiting, we were finally rescued by a multi-passenger van….made for 9.  We of course were a group of 15, plus the driver and plenty of luggage.  Did this deter us from all reaching Skopje?  Of course not!  All this required was squishing four into the back row, five into the middle, putting two guys together to share the front passenger seat (their heads looked like they were Siamese twins from behind), and sticking the rest of the old men (I’m pretty sure I was the only passenger under 50) on top of luggage bags in the trunk.  The men made sure to offer the benches to the ladies, and so I found myself on the back bench next to an elderly woman wielding a very long wooden pole and her daughter.  As the driver eased the van onto the road the woman sitting next to me shouted, “Who has a camera?  Somebody take a picture of this and add it to Facebook!”  Everyone chuckled, agreeing that this was the oddest thing that had happened to them in a long time.  Even through the chatter we sat in darkness, as (from what I could gather from my rudimentary Macedonian) a dark van would be less likely to attract the police who certainly would not be happy with such a small van for so many people.

Half an hour later I began to recognize the landscape outside the window.  The river, the trees, the stores…eventually I saw the road towards the canyon which I had visited a week before, Matka.  We had finally reached Skopje.  Driving down the eight-lane street splashed with streetlight and speeding cars, the driver began making occasional stops on the side of the road to let off passengers.  In the end only three of us rode all the way to the bus station.  I turned towards the station doors where I would await my next connection.  The other two grabbed their bags and drifted into the darkness of the parking lot to find their own rides.

After this long ordeal, all I could think about was grabbing a coffee to make it through the wait until my six-hour bus to Belgrade, Serbia.  Partway through the station I was approached by a Macedonian taxi driver who asked if I was in need of a ride.  “No thanks, I have a bus in an hour.”  My accent must peaked his interest.  “Where are you from?” he inquired, as do most when they realize I’m not native.  I told him of course that I am from the United States, but chose to say it in Slovene.  “The United States, really?  But you speak Macedonian, that is very good!  Do you want to grab a coffee?”  I gave it a thought – I had at least an hour, I was tired already and would most likely fall asleep in the station should I sit by myself, and honestly I really wanted to enjoy just one more coffee in Macedonia.  Oh yeah, I suppose I should consider if it is even safe to leave the station to grab a coffee at 10:30 at night with a random Macedonian guy at least 15 years my senior.  When we introduced ourselves and shook hands however, he mentioned “you have a very strong handshake, that is very good” which I took as a good sign of respect.

“You play sport?” he asked me as we walked towards the café attached to the far side of the station.  “I can tell you are a strong person.”  I was dressed all in activewear and moving with my usual walk of confidence which becomes especially pronounced when I am in unfamiliar cities or situations.   I spoke briefly of my mountain hiking, as well as playing soccer back in the day.  “Good, it is important to be physically strong” he began.  Goran, as I learned was his name, believes that there are four sectors of life in which a person must be strong, and only by being strong in all four can that person lead a successful life.  “You know what a good life is?  I will tell you.  It isn’t about the people you meet, or the friends you make.  It is about being strong.  I do not mean only physically strong. I mean you must be strong in four things in life: in sport, work, family, and love.”  Goran kept his eyes steady on me the whole time, making sure he had my attention.

Goran described strength in many ways.  “Physical strength does not mean that one must already be strong.  The most important thing is that a person has a goal and keeps moving towards that goal.  You may try to run a certain distance and fail fifty times over, but as long as you wake up and try it again the next day, then you are strong.  The same goes with family.  Maybe you fight.  Maybe you know parents that cannot get long and have lots of problems.  They must not give up.  If they give in and separate, leaving their children in the mess behind, then these are not strong people.  You must find a way to make things work, always.  And then there is love.  You cannot just date someone because they are fun or you get along.  This is just a friend.  No, in love you must choose someone who makes you a better person every single day.”

Family, it appeared, was much more important to Goran than maintaining friendships.  “Most friends you have anyways are fakes, for your and for them.  What does it mean to call up these so-called friends and get together for a coffee where you talk about what books you read and what movies you saw?  You are just using them to make you forget about your own loneliness.  That is selfish, and that is not true friendship.  You know who you should surround yourself with?  You must find a partner who makes you strong, makes you a better person. Then you have your parents, and your children, and they are the only people who you ever really need.”

Satisfied with his speech, Goran relaxed in his seat and allowed me to mull over his words.  He seemed confident that I was on my way to being strong, and if only I understood the whole picture I would eventually lead a good life in all four categories.  I was left a bit overwhelmed to be honest; having listened to a person speak with such conviction of what he determined was a good life, I felt a bit pressured to defend my own.  “Speak your mind” Goran said.  “You are not being true to yourself or anyone around you if you keep anything inside.”  I was spared the ensuing conversation on what my problems were and how he suggest I improve things, however, when the girl whom he had arranged to drive that night found us and said it was time that she be getting to the airport.

Goran left with a goodbye and an offer to lend an ear anytime I had a problem.  I don’t assume I’ll be calling him up, but I was fascinated by this chance interaction and continued mulling over whether I was being an honest person throughout the rest of my wait for the bus to Belgrade.

Midnight soon rolled around and I made my way outside in search for the bus.  My ticket was purchased through Flixbus, but instead of a giant green bus I soon discovered that I was to ride a local bus with a small piece of paper on which “Flixbus partner” was typed taped to the front window.  Thank goodness I saw this, as the same situation in Ljubljana almost led to me missing my bus to Sarajevo.

A few minutes after midnight we were on our way.  In the darkness of night I attempted to lean back and catch some sleep, though my attempts were hampered by the chair in front of my slowly digging into my knees.  Of course, I’ve never been able to sleep on buses anyways, and so I was left to singing songs in my head and searching for shapes in the dark outside the window for the next six hours.  The bus worked just fine though, and we rolled into Belgrade just a few minutes after six in the morning.

My first visit to Belgrade was six months prior in February.  At that time colors were bleak, every person was dressed head to toe in black, winds left a cold chill running through one’s bones day and night, and refugees occupied the park, underpass, and warehouses near to the bus station.  In the crisp August morning sun I found a different city – one of vibrant color and charming old buildings, city dwellers meandering the streets, and empty warehouses.  It was not in the cards to explore the city a second time however; my ride to Slovenia would arrive soon and I was not willing to risk any chance of missing it.

At the early hour of 6am only half of the benches were occupied at the train station.  I chose the first one in my path and dropped my backpack.  Thirteen hours of transit had left me hungry and I pulled out the only food I had left: a bag of pistachios.  One by one I cracked open the shells, slowly reaching the bottom of the bag while observing the locals come and go through the station.  A small woman wrapped in a dark wool coat beckoned towards the space next to me to inquire if it was available.  “Seveda (of course)” I mentioned, and she smiled the small, warm, wrinkled smile which can only be given by a kind weathered old woman.   Her voice chirped like a bird even though her words were a bit raspy.  “Aren’t you cold?” she asked in Serbian, gesturing towards my thing sweater.  “You must be prepared out here!  But what are you wearing?  Don’t you see you are the only one in this kind of clothing?  You must wear something nice.  You are young, maybe there is a nice Serbian boy out there for you!”

“I am alright for now” I assured in Slovene to the grandmotherly woman.  “I am just waiting for a car to Slovenia.”  I mentioned how beautiful the city looked this time of year compared to when I had last been.  “Me, how would I know!” my bench partner chuckled.  “I am from north of here.  I’ve been a teacher for many years, headed back to start again.  But that is good that you travel.  You are young, it is good to take this time to see many places.”  She again flashed me her warm smile and gave me a quick pat on the knee.  “But it is much too cold!  I must leave now, I will stand inside the station to get away from the wind.  You are sure you are not too cold?”  I reassured her that I was indeed feeling alright sitting outside on this bench during the cool breezy morning, and she bid me farewell before disappearing through the station doors.

Alone again, I waited another hour until it was finally time to find my ride back to Ljubljana.  I crossed through the train station to search through the cars parked on the other side.  Just a few feet down from the entrance was a black 8-passenger van with the same license plate as had been texted to me the day before.  The driver sat outside the van, leaning from one foot to the other while smoking a cigarette.  “To Ljubljana?” I asked, though of course I already knew the answer.  Taking his last long drawl, the cigarette was tossed to the pavement before the driver took my bag to place in the back of the car.

Inside the van were four other people – three friends sitting together in the back seat, and a young athletic guy who couldn’t stop glancing at his watch slouching against the window in the middle row.  As the last to get in, I was left with the middle seat on the middle bench.  By 8:05am we were loaded up and ready to go.

The first half hour of driving was wholly uneventful.  We crossed the bridge over the Danube to head out of the city and joined other cars as they began their own journeys west towards Croatia.  Pulling over one last time before the border to pick up another passenger, we then drove back onto the highway. Drove might not be the way to put it….slowly rolled towards stopped traffic would be a more accurate description.  Five kilometers from the border, traffic was at a complete standstill.  The guy to my left glanced at his watched and sighed, looking especially exasperated.  Our driver mumbled in incomprehensible Serbian, putting the van into park and eventually turning the keys to shut off the engine.  Car doors opened and closed all along the highway as passengers walked outside to take a smoke and chat through the windows of the cars in front of them.  Finally, after half an hour, we were able to inch up…about five car lengths.  I took a peek over the front bench to get a better look at the traffic.  As far as I could tell, the traffic was stopped beyond my line of sight and I assumed beyond it.

The cars slowly moved within three lanes, inching towards the border between Serbia and Croatia.  Every move brought us a little closer, but the ticking clock just left the border feeling farther and farther away.  3000m, the sign on the left said…2500km.  A driver on our right was pushing his car forward, whether due to a lack of gas in the tank or a dead engine I wasn’t sure.  We had reached the border at 9:30am and by 1pm I was texting friends back in Ljubljana to say I’d be late.  It couldn’t get much worse though, I hoped.   I should have reconsidered that statement.  Only at 6pm were we finally able to begin our drive away from the border through Croatia.  The nine-hour wait on the border left everyone desperate for a break and we stopped at the first rest station available to become untrapped for a few minutes from this black box of strangers.

The drive through Croatia was quiet.  No radio and a dead phone left for little to listen to except for the occasional conversation between the driver and the man in the front passenger seat.  We sat mostly in silence, looking ahead or falling asleep on the headrests as the van made its way across the country.

Once at the Slovenian-Croatian border, the wait lasted another two hours until we came out the other side.  By that time my eyes were glued to the front window, glazed over after staring at the same spot in the car for so long.  The normally five-hour trip from Belgrade to Ljubljana had turned into a 17 hour ordeal.  When we finally pulled up to parking area near the train station in Ljubljana, I grabbed my pack to throw it over my shoulder and turned away from the van without a second glance.

I never anticipated that traveling from Ohrid, Macedonia to Ljubljana, Slovenia would take 32 hours.  I was willing to take it, however, as long as I was back before 5am.  I had only three days left in Slovenia at that point, and I was not willing to miss out on my next and final hike in the Slovenian Alps: the hike to Triglav.

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