May 09, 2009

A Sort of Hiking Trail

We're in the full grip of spring and all the things that come with it: unpredictable weather, allergies, suddenly overgrown lawns, the greening of the hillsides, the swelling of the river and, finally, an opportunity to do some hiking. There's no shortage of hiking destinations in these parts, but there is a lack of what we Americans would term "hiking trails." This frustrated us during our first spring and summer. From the municipality we obtained a rather well-produced hiking map, made in conjunction with a town in Bulgaria as part of a cross-border project. Problem is, the map shows only two "eco-trails" (as they are called) in our greater area. And we've hiked them both.

Turns out we were going about this in the wrong way. It's like the last scene in Back the Future. Marty says, "Whoa, Doc, there's not enough road to get up to 88 mph." And wild-haired Doc Brown smiles and replies, "Roads? Where we're going we don't need any roads." And the Delorean lifts up from the ground and blasts off into the sequel.

Trails? Where we're going we don't need any hiking trails. We just pick a village and start walking.

There are three distinct settlement types in Macedonia: cities, towns, and villages. The cities, like Skopje, Tetovo or Bitola, have a distinct Western bend and include most things you'd associate with America or western Europe: expensive shopping, fast-food, movie theaters, malls, albeit with a blocky concrete/communist twist. The towns? Well, they're just lesser versions of the cities; they hold a certain amount of rustic-ness but also offer enough Western amenities to make you feel comfortable.

When you picture Peace Corps Volunteers serving around the world you probably don't envision them in places like Macedonian towns and you most certainly don't think of cities. No, if you close your eyes and conjure a PCV hard at work, what most closely resembles that image in your head is a Macedonian village. Rural and antiquated, villages are scattered everywhere across Macedonia.

In our municipality there are around 33 villages tucked into the hillsides, ravines and mountain slopes. It's quite common to hear someone in town refer to "my village" or "my family's village." Many families trace their roots back to these small settlements and have relatives still living there. So these villages become destinations in the summer, when their altitude provides some relief from the heat.

Getting to these villages--and getting out of them--is not always easy. Once you leave town, the roads quickly lose their pavement and become rough dirt trails. They're also quite narrow and every half kilometer or so there's a small turnout to assist any drivers that may meet head-on coming up and down the mountain. During the winter one particularly rural village found itself snowed in and Red Cross helicopters were called in to deliver the necessary supplies.

In other words, a walk to a village is all the hike you could ask for. Now we've realized this and begun picking villages at random and setting off. Recently we took a rather satisfying hike with our friend Tina. The original destination was a far-off village but then Tina had the idea of attempting to find some local waterfalls she'd heard lots about.

We were standing at what passes for an intersection in a village. There's a school at the intersection. It's K-8, but serves only ten or fifteen students. [And here's where the communist mentality lives on: I asked a teacher at the high school why the municipality doesn't just drive these students to the central primary school every day, rather than operate an entire school. It'd certainly be cheaper. Her reply: "But then those teachers would lose their jobs."]

At the intersection we came upon two older women who were more than happy to point us in thr right direction. They were en route to a day's work in a nearby field. We passed the field a few minutes later and saw a couple of men tilling the ground with a horse-drawn plow.

The trail soon ceased to be even that. We were walking along the side of a small river, one which, we hoped, would include some falls. Every 500 meters or so we were forced to cross the river--I couldn't tell if it was the river or our path that was winding. Most of the crossings required a simple leap; others needed some serious ingenuity, like moving a felled tree to create a (very) temporary bridge. We were determined.

Then, in a mass of enormous rocks bordering on boulders, the path ended. The river continued, but we really couldn't see any practical way to go on. Frustrated and tired, we found a seat in a prime landslide spot and had some lunch. While we were discussing the trek back and other things unrelated to waterfalls, Jillian spotted something through the trees. Closer inspection revealed that we had, in fact, found not one, but two small waterfalls. Fifty more meters of scrambling over the rocks and there we were. There was a even a makeshift picnic table constructed at the base of one of the falls. How thoughtful of someone.

So we sat there for awhile, beside two waterfalls, near a village, on no hiking trail, in Macedonia.

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