September 14, 2008

Backpacks, Borders and Beer

This small town doesn't really do advertising. For any given event, whether it's a Red Cross fundraiser or an art exhibition, you're lucky if a few fliers find their way up in store fronts. Eerily, about the only thing that's well-publicized around here is death, in the form of announcements posted on telephone poles.

But then it's not really that important around here, in this town where word of mouth spreads faster than internet chain mail. A culture based on personal relationships and socializing doesn't really need posted announcements to know what's going on--sitting down to coffee with your neighbors is a better source of local events than checking email or reading fliers in the library windows could ever hope to be.

Problem is, unless someone specifically seeks us out, sits us down, and talks Baby Macedonian to us, Jillian and I won't really pick up on the word of mouth network. More than once, I've been asked by one of the teachers or students at school why I didn't attend such-and-such. Well...because this is the first I'm hearing of it.

So imagine my delight when, walking home from school a few days ago, I crossed paths with the head of the local hiking club whom informed me that there was an organized climb of the region's highest peak on Saturday. Then she said something else. I didn't catch it, but felt lucky to have the day and time of the hike. That something "else" was of some importance, and it sure was one hell of a surprise yesterday...

So about this mountain. It's called Ruen--or, literally, "Mt. Everest of Northeastern Macedonia"--and its peak sits directly on the Macedonian-Bulgarian border. Compared with the more majestic and lush peaks in western Macedonia it's not a whole lot to look at, as if someone planted a wide swath of blueberry fields on the moon. The terrain is the stuff ankle sprains are made of--loose, large, hard rocks--but the view was quite impressive and the hike fast. Before we knew it, the group (numbering about 60 people from various hiking clubs around the country) was approaching the summit. At this point many of the long-abandoned military outposts from WWII, crumbling and haunting, were clearly visible along the extended ridge.

National flag? Check. Beer? Check. Let's go.

Jillian near the peak

After a final scramble up a steep incline, we arrived at the summit. And saw around one hundred people already there, eating and drinking. Ummm...? A few Peace Corps volunteers from the other side of the mountain who had hiked up with their own hiking club gave us the scoop:

"Oh yeah, there's supposed to be some sort of ceremony and then we're all crossing over the border for the party...barbeque, beer, dancing."

I glanced down at my clunky hiking boots and tried to imagine doing the oro, the traditonal Macedonian dance that tends to spontaneously erupt at any social event numbering more than three people. Well, this certainly explained why one of our guides on the hike was carrying a backpack bulging with two-liter bottles of Skopsko beer. Over the next hour more people arrived, many by four-wheel-drive vehicles from both sides of border. Border police from both sides stood together, chatting and laughing, as the crowd swelled.

Then the ceremony began. It was a sort of gift exchange between the two sides signalling their peaceful relationship. Well, I'll say. No sooner had that official business ended then everyone high-tailed it over to the Bulgarian border station (a mere 200 meters away), where the grills were already working overtime and the sound of carbonation escaping beer bottles filled the air. And people were dancing.

The fact that all of this was occuring at 7,000 feet on a grassy plateau from which we could see into the infinity of southern Macedonia, western Bulgaria, and southern Serbia, never ceased to be funny. Oh yeah, and there were some horses meandering in the area, no doubt waiting to be photographed for a calendar of inspirational quotes. Sausages were served off the grill and some friendly Bulgarian men invited us over to drink from their pail full of white-wine-and-lemon spritzer.

After a couple hours of this, we heard the by-now familiar shriek of our leader's whistle. It was time to go. At the bottom, we hitched a ride with some Skopje-bound hikers. I sat in the front seat, feeling sufficiently car sick from the twisty road back into town while Jillian sat in the back of the van laughing it up with a rambling old man. He was probably passing on some worthy word-of-mouth information about next year. Who knows? We'll just have our beer at the ready, just in case.

Just your average Saturday spent rejoicing with border guards

On the border with the flags of Macedonia, Bulgaria and the E.U.

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