April 24, 2008

Westside Story

For such a small country, Macedonia sure has impressive geographic diversity. This is especially apparent now, as spring has set in and with it has come lush greenery and blossoms all over. Last week we made our first foray to the western third of Macedonia, a sort of north-south axis that comprises the cities of Tetovo, Gostivar, Kichevo, and the lake cities of Struga and Ohrid.

As our bus emerged from Skopje's city limits, the landscape opened up into a dazzling portrait of green mountains and picturesque villages, each one watched over by the towering minaret of its mosque (this region of Macedonia is predominantly ethnic Albanian Muslim). As the highway traced its path through the mountains, we soaked up the scenery, our excitement for the week building.

The occasion for our trip was a Peace Corps in-service training event held in Struga at a hotel straight out of Las Vegas, circa 1965. The four days in Struga were full of sessions on topics ranging from community project ideas to Macedonian history and politics (a particularly fascinating subject currently). It also gave us a chance to be together again as a group and to have fun exploring Struga and practicing our bowling game in the hotel's basement alley. Check out my form in this action shot (and note my flip flops):

The training ended on Friday, and while most volunteers boarded buses back to their home sites, Jillian and I decided we couldn't pass up this opportunity to see Ohrid, tourist destination #1 in Macedonia. Just eight miles from Struga on the lake that shares its name, Ohrid has a rich history which includes being the probable birthplace of the Cyrillic alphabet and the capital of Tsar Samuil's empire. It was during this empire that Ohrid's Kale, or fortress, was built. Its remains still overlook the city.

For reference, there's Struga and Ohrid in the lower left-hand corner:

What can I say about Ohrid? It's incredible. It was a bright, warm (70's) day when we set out for a bit of a walking tour with our friend Erin, who has been there several times and knows all the local landmarks. We stayed with another volunteer friend, Karen, who we increasingly grew to envy as we walked around the beautiful town. There's a Peace Corps volunteer here?

We came away feeling like a visit to Ohrid is like a visit to an old Greek or Italian city, but for one third of the price. Cafes line the water's edge, a majestic fortress towers atop the city's hill, an active archeological site buzzes with diggers, and a handful of centuries-old churches dot the landscape. The streets are cobblestone and the houses are overflowing with charm and character.

Overwhelmed by Ohrid's embarrassment of photogenic riches, I made like my mom and kept the camera clicking somewhere into the many hundreds. Here's a few of our favorites, but to see a lot more go to "Our Photos" on the right sidebar.

Then it was time to leave, at which point our story turns from fun and lovely to, well, tedious and unending. We had decided ahead of time to use this opportunity to make a brief stop in Chashka to see our host family. Since that little village is on the train line, taking the train from southern Macedonia to Skopje via Chashka seemed logical.

When I was retelling this story yesterday to Kristina, a teacher I work with, she simply replied: "Why would you ever take the train?" Oh yeah, tell me now. Besides, we've taken it before and really enjoyed it in all its rumbling, smoke-filled glory.

We'd heard the train ride through the south is one of the prettiest in all the country, so we were excited as the train pulled out of the Bitola station on another bright, warm day. We had a cabin all to ourselves and were downright giddy at the thought of our host mother's homemade bread and wine for dinner. A simple two-hour ride through the heart of Macedonia and we'd be in Chashka for the night before continuing on home.

On the train, in happier times

Twenty minutes later, the train began to slow. Then it stopped. There was a conference of men at the base of the lead train, followed by some muttering. We know just enough Macedonian to understand that the train was broken ("расипан") and a new one had to come save us. So we waited...

Almost five hours later, the emergency train arrived. We could barely muster the strength to celebrate. Thirsty, hot, and irritated, we just wanted the train to start moving. Funny, I seem to remember receiving an email from headquarters about traveling in Macedonia and I believe one recommendation was to always have extra food and water, especially when traveling by train.

I should also mention that Jillian was in the full throes of food poisoning (something a bunch of volunteers came down with in Struga), making her traveling experience extra pleasant. We arrived in Chashka after dark and Lela took us in like refugees, fed us, and totally understood when we wanted to go to bed shortly thereafter. We were leaving the next day (by train!) at 5:30am.

I'm happy to report that the second installment of train riding was smooth, save for the two men who insisted on smoking all the way to Skopje in our commuter-crammed train car. We got back to our town just in time to head off to school. We were happy to be back.

On Saturday we're off to Istanbul with four other volunteers for six days. Until next time, chao!

1 comment:

M said...

Great blog, you guys! You're so right about the hotel being reminiscent of old Vegas.