For some strange reason it often seems to be border crossing days that are just that little bit more unusual and/or challenging and take me back to my ‘old school’ travels.
Take today for instance. From my research it appeared that there were no buses to the border but one could get a taxi on each side for a couple of bucks (but that the taxis would try for 5 euro if you let them). I figured a few bucks was a reasonable amount as the hotel was a short way out of town on the wrong side for the border and so I was happy to pay. My host, however, was not. That is, not happy for ME to pay for a taxi. No, he said, it is less expensive to take the bus to Tushemisht. Whether it was because I was trying to stifle my laughter at the name Tushemisht (tushy mist .. ha ha ha) or because I felt ashamed of my intended financial profligacy, I decided to take him at his word and set off to find a) breakfast and b) the bus to Tushemisht.
Judging from the constant staring and nudging of companions by the local populace of Pogradec, I would guess that there are not a lot of foreigners visiting this town. One woman even stopped her work digging in a garden bed and stood on the footpath, slack jawed, looking me up and down like I had just arrived from another planet. And then just when I felt like I was the first of my kind to set foot on this strange new land, I walked into a cafe to ask if they had food (they didn’t), and was greeted with “G’day!”. The young bloke behind the counter was born in Melbourne and has moved back here with his folks. We chatted briefly and I told him how much I liked Albania and tried not to notice the sadness that spread across his face as he said… ‘yeah…it’s….ok’ before telling me how much he misses Australia. Next stop was a byrek shop where I filled up on filo pastry with cheese and asked the lovely woman in the shop where the bus goes to Tushemisht. Unfortunatley she told me the wrong place so that added an extra few 100 metres to the distance I had now had to walk in order to ‘save money’. The bus was waiting and off we whizzed, arriving about 15 minutes later. I jumped out and asked the driver where I could get a taxi to the border, only to be told ‘no taxi’. Oh. And how far is it? 1km. Ok I could have hitched – there was the odd car coming over the border – but everyone kept assuring me how ‘not far’ it was. Not only did I walk the 1 km to the Albanian side of the border, but by the time I had walked through no man’s land (“it’s 30 metres” said the Albanian border guard…it was at least 500) and through the Macedonian side and then on to the monastery (“don’t worry, it’s very close” said the Macedonian border guard, failing to mention the bus that would be arriving in about 10 minutes that could have taken me the rest of the way), I had walked at least 3-4 km carrying 20 odd kg. The next time someone helpfully tells me something is ‘not far’ I am going to insist they come with me and carry my pack and THEN tell me if it was close. Once I learn Macedonian….
So I finally stumbed into what I hoped was the grounds of the Sveti Naum monastery and ran into a tour group on a boat with, thankfully, an English speaking guide. ‘Oh yes, it’s very close’ he said… ‘700m’. Grrrr! At that point my back decided not to save any more money and instead ask how much it would cost to jump on his boat. So I joined the tour, checking out the natural spring which bubbles up into a tiny chapel (and drinking deeply from its chilly outpourings), then being rowed through the crystal clear aquamarine river formed by it, arriving at the glorious lakeside Byzantine Monastery in style. $4 was never better spent.
After checking out the magnificent frescoes inside the tiny chapel and the self satisfied peacocks outside it I headed down to catch a bus for the next section of my journey, irritatingly having to go via the border before heading back north. But the day was not done with me yet and as I walked down the hill to the tiny village of Trpejca (easily remembered by leaving the “d’ out of turd pizza). which would be my home for the night I spied a sign for the place I had picked out from my meticulous (2 minutes before walking out of the last hotel) internet research..Villa Filipe. I did think it was odd that no one was there to answer the door, but the neighbours were all happy to help rouse someone. I also thought it was odd when a somewhat edentulous older lady appeared from behind the house, as I had been led to believe they spoke English and she certainly didn’t. After about 10 or 15 minutes trying to work out how much the room would cost – using google translate, a calculator and eventually falling back on sign language then giving her a pen and paper to write it down, I was rather surprised to find the price was half what I had seen advertised – then less pleasantly surprised to find out there was no internet when there should have been. When she went to get some sheets to make up the bed for me, I stood and gazed out the window, admiring glorious Lake Ohrid below. Then I came to a sudden and embarrassing realisation. I was not actually IN Villa Filipe – I was in a house next door to it! The sign looks like it is for this place but actually it is for the next entrance!! Anyway I couldn’t very well tell her I’m sorry I made a mistake, I meant to go to your neighbour’s. I mean I quite LITERALLY couldn’t tell her that (or anything else). And she seems like a nice old dear even if I can’t understand a word she is saying to me!! God knows what she thought about some random Australian turning up on her doorstep and demanding to stay the night! But I was delighted to discover that Macedonia is going to compete with Albania in the friendly stakes.
I ended up staying 4 days with Mrs Lambeska, despite having no common language beyond my few words of Macedonian – hello, good, not good, yes, no, thank you, please, goodnight and well done. I think it is fair to say that she loved having me there. Every evening there was some sort of treat for me – chocolate éclairs, cake, home made croissant, chicken, fish – she packed me off on my hikes with a bag full of chocolate, and every time I came into the house she would give me a huge hug and a kiss goodnight every night. We spent the evenings watching Turkish soap operas together and she would chat away to me seemingly oblivious that I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, while I would respond by pointing to a particular character in the drama and saying “not good” in my best Macedonian. Sometimes when things go wrong they actually go so right. Serendipity. You gotta love it.