Perhaps one of the most memorable portions of my Balkans Bouncing this summer was the penultimate leg of my trip en route back to Greece. The bus ride between Kotor, Montenegro and Skopje, Macedonia is something between 10 and 13 hours – so long, and one that was filled with an array of bumps, border crossings, interrupted slumbers, and smelly and urky Macedonian men. Yes, urky is a word, you get it.
I was already traveling during the most heightened period of refugee entrance into Europe, capped off with the frontier between Greece and Macedonia shutting its doors sometime while I was bouncing. So tensions were high, and there was no shortage of “be carefuls” coming from afar, as I was a single lady traveling solo via many modes of transport, and not without vigilance by my side. However, I really don’t think any amount of vigilance would have decreased my creeped-out-ness on the journey into Alexander the Great’s (still being debated) Macedonia. I actually think it was the most ON in terms of vigilance that I had to be during my whole three weeks on the road.
I became a pro at maneuvering the internet, bus, and train stations for my desired mode of transport between each point of interest, and my long bus ride was set to depart Kotor a little after 7pm, arriving in Skopje sometime around 8am. Ear plugs, neck pillow, and snacks were packed for easy access.
When I hopped aboard, I was pleasantly surprised that there were only about 5 or 6 of us on a charter bus. It was glorious and I could definitely get down with all this loungy leg room. That bliss held up for perhaps two or three hours. Two or three hours which consisted of my feet on top of the seat in front of me as I gazed out the window, only to be interrupted by the onslaught of a swarm of sweaty, smelly, mish-mosh teethed Macedonian men. Ugh.
The guy who sat down next to me was balding, round, and snored with deep intensity. And that was in addition to being shouty with his other sweaty friends. Good thing I had my ear plugs within finger’s reach. During the whole bus ride I hugged my purse as I sat or slept, making sure everything was zipped and a part of my bodice. I had never felt like such a good little white American girl in my life.
I eventually got some shut eye, only to be awoken by a tap on the shoulder by my sweaty friend at each border crossing, one after the other. During that sporadic night of shuteye, we traversed four countries, or 3.5 depending on your Kosovo stance. The most memorable was while crossing from Albania into Kosovo, where we were all ordered to disembark the bus, collect our baggage, and line up for a search of our belongings. The immigration officers immediately dismissed me back to the bus when I said I was American; meanwhile my Macedonian companions were searched and patted down multiple times before being cleared. Despite popular belief, being an American abroad tends to have its perks.
Now we were in Kosovo, and I was a little bit excited mixed with a lotta bit on edge and ready to get our, what seemed like the hundredth rest stop, show on the road. It felt like at every rest stop we stayed for at least thirty minutes, so in retrospect our journey probably took well over 12 hours to complete. During my brief trip to Kosovo, while the bus driver and Macedonians ate and smoked, I explored the mini-mart, which was overflowing with packaged drinks and snacks. It looked like they were what I can only imagine military bulk shipments might resemble.
At first I was unsure what currency to use to purchase something, since Kosovo is sort of kinda not a country depending who you ask, and there are so many currencies in those parts. Turns out everything was labeled in euros, so euros it was. I bought some candy, and had a good giggle when one of my bus companions asked the guy at checkout what the name of his country was. Hesitantly, the cashier replied “Kosovo” and my homeboy thanked him for his clarification. Twas clearly a touchy subject and awkward interaction I’m thrilled to have bore witness to.
Then I had to pee, so I found the toilet, which of course was a squatter. I have explicitly fond memories of squatters or holes in the ground whilst on other inter-country bus rides, so this was a fun one to add to the list. It warranted a plugged nose, and was topped off with a broken window and a drip dry. I felt safe. Come to think of it, I probably have material to write a book on all the fascinating johns I’ve used.
I peed and wandered back to the bus in hopes that we’d be ready to get a move on it. Not so fast. I walked past the restaurant’s kitchen and there was a lot of nothing, except for these two plastic containers filled with something that looked like a concoction of peppers, squid, and salmonella. I wondered what they were all eating.
We were finally at the home stretch, with only the final cross into Macedonia. When we arrived in Skopje at the crack of dawn, I was pretty much a shell of a human as can be assumed. I met a Chilean guy on my bus and turns out we were walking in the same direction to our hostels. We walked, talked, gaped at the ridiculous statues literally everywhere, and wowed at the piles of trash decorating the ground as the sun began to rise.
While I was creeped, urked, and constantly torn from my beauty sleep during this entire bus ride, I can now say I’ve ‘been’ to Kosovo (my passport says so!), and successfully add another weird and humorous international bus journey to the ever-growing list of hilarity that only happens while traversing the developing world.
Have you ever taken a bus ride that left a weird taste in your mouth, but ended up being a favorite travel story in retrospect? Have you actually eaten real food in Kosovo that didn’t exude food poisoning? Tell me about it in the comments!