An Overnight Bus Ride With Sweaty Macedonian Men

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.

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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.

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Enough beverages to start a new country.

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.

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This is the best I could get of said window and squatter.

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.

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Yummy.

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.

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I know, so many beautiful photos in this post!

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.

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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! 

 

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Shuffling Thru Shutka – Capital Of The Gypsies

Many of you probably know by now, whether in waking life or in social media life, that I’m a big ol’ fan of getting off the beaten track. While I do love seeing all the sites you’re ‘supposed’ to see, I’m also into seeing the abandoned and the rarely-tourist-drawing attractions of places I venture to. And, well, there was one such morning on my recent Balkans trip that took me to one of these places – which came as a must-see recommendation by the fantastic Frenchie hitchhikers I met in Thessaloniki.

Can you guess where on Earth I went?

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I went to a town called Shutka, and it was vibrant, slummy, scary, exciting, and surely kept me on my toes and even more vigilant than I usually am when it comes to my surroundings (though one Greek man may say that is most certainly not true).

Shutka is a village in Macedonia just about 25 minutes outside of central Skopje, and is home to the largest concentration of gypsies in the world. They have a sitting Roma mayor, and their official language is Romani. Surely when I learned this I had to make the trip out there to see for myself. I’ve always been quite intrigued by gypsies, but even more so when I learned last year that two of my students in Spain are ‘middle class gypsies’, whatever that means.

In preparation for my gypsy venture, I sort of attempted to dress in a non-conspicuous way, but honestly, I think no matter how I dressed I’d have stood out, let’s be real. So, I still rocked my gold ‘LA’ earrings and golden slippers. However, I did plan my purse ahead of time and wore my new blue one rather than my bling bling silver one, I didn’t bring my entire wallet, only some cash and an ID, and just the bare minimum that I’d need for the afternoon.

I hopped aboard bus #19, which picked up just around the corner from my hostel, and took that all the way to the end of the line, when we arrived at a street filled with street vendors selling everything imaginable. Apparently, this street market, which is open daily and where most of the people have shops, is filled with people from central Skopje coming to do their shopping. I was actually quite surprised to see that the bus was so full when we arrived in Shutka, as I was expecting to be the only person heading out to that part of town. I definitely was not, but most definitely was the only non-Macedonian in those parts, so there’s that.

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I walked for a ways on this main street until I got sick of it. It was too loud and just stall after stall, and I wanted to see the places these people live. I started weaving down random streets, and let me tell you, it was probably the closest to the slums of India I’d get outside of India. Some homes were mere shacks, while their neighbor(s) lived in mansions of 2 floors.

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Methinks I just missed wedding season.

While walking around, I really wanted to take photos of the people; they were just so fascinating to observe, as people typically are to me. But, I was actually a bit nervous, especially after feeling a little heckled on a couple instances, and feeling like if I wanted a photo I’d better ask for one.

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A shop selling delicious burek.

At one point, I was walking and saw these two guys completely staring at me. I mean, I was a solo girl so I knew I stood out, but I just kept walking. Then, like 2 minutes later, I heard shouting in my direction, but since I saw another guy on a bike heading in their direction I didn’t think too much of it, since I thought they were probably friends. Well, they weren’t! They were howling at me, and 2 seconds later their motorcycle pulled right up on my ass. I think they were asking if I was Italian, and all I could say was “I don’t understand! I’m sorry!” To which I got a friendly “Ahhh, English! American!” And they zipped off.

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Audi?

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Wandering some more, I came up on a street lined with lots of crap for sale. At the end of the street, just up to the left and before the main market street, I was so intrigued by a huge lot filled with heaps of CRAP. It was like everyone and anyone who wanted to could come in, dump a bag of all the shit they could find or steal, and start selling it. I almost didn’t go in, but my curiosity won per the usual, and I entered to no shortage of stares.

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I initially went in just wanting to take one souvenir photo and then bounce, but when I took said photo, an elderly gentleman burst out yelling something along the lines of NO PICTURES at me. He stormed over wagging his finger in my face, I apologized and said I was just curious. Within seconds the man who owned the heap of crap shop in front of me came over. Turns out he spoke quite decent English and started talking with me, and told his amigo to pipe down, that I was fine and not to worry. Homie still huffed and puffed relentlessly though.

Soon the English speaking man’s daughter came over and couldn’t stop smiling and staring at me. She also kept saying “nice to meet you too!” on repeat. It was so sweet and reminded me of my Koko babies still saying that to me after year 3. Soon enough this persuaded the feisty gentleman to come check me out. He tried, actually insisted, on getting me on his motorcycle for a ride – which I politely (and profusely) declined. Strike 2! I don’t think he liked me much. Huffy man aside, I spoke with the kind man and his daughter for a little about their lives in Shutka, how poor they are, but how happy they also are. The little girl was all smiles, and her father was so nice – but who knows, perhaps it was a rouse. I’d like to believe they were just good gypsy peeps.

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The crap market and motorcycle that my presence was requested on. Sorry sir.

Carrying on, this time on the opposite side of the market street, came the most interesting of my Shutka encounters. I walked past front yards filled with plastic bottles (for tax money collection?), an old television repair hole in the wall shop, and a friendly man who’s eye I caught.

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The man was carrying his 2 year old son, and at first approached me speaking what I believe to be Macedonian, because clearly I didn’t look of the Roma type. I responded with the standard “I’m sorry! I don’t understand!” Low and behold, hombre was quite fluent in English, and was so excited when I opened my mouth and English poured out. We talked for a couple minutes on the street about how he learned English (mostly from watching American TV and films), and how he had lived in France for 1 year trying to make more money for his family, but nada. He asked what on earth I was doing there, and invited me to walk with him for a little while he went to grab his son an ice cream down the street. He had to get back to work, but really really wanted me to go to his house and hang out with his mom even though she spoke no English. “You can have a coffee” he said, but I really didn’t want a coffee, and thought it odd that he wanted me to meet his mom so badly.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have gone, for fear of being cut open and sold on the black market, but he seemed harmless, and had an adorable, flirtatious little son in his arms. Men and babies always seem more trustworthy. So, I obliged and went back to his home with him. I was quite curious to see what a gypsy home looked like and wanted to satisfy my curiosity as always.

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When we got to his home, his wife was there waiting for him to bring their son so he could get back to work. She didn’t speak any English, but kept offering me everything to drink – coffee, juice, water. Her husband was telling me how their home is so modest (2 tiny rooms), but it’s what they can afford because they get no money from the government and barely make a living. How they want another child, but one is all they can financially support, and they want him to have the best life they can give him. I thought that was a rather responsible outlook, and a parenting tactic that should seriously be adopted by those who think because they can pop a kid out, they should.

The father went back to work, and I hung around for about 15 minutes playing in their kitchen/living room with the baby, taking selfies, and watching him climb up the couch and giggle and flirt with me. He was a little peach, but I was ready to bounce to the ounce and get out of Shutka.

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He was so fascinated by my iPhone!

And that about wrapped up my couple hours roaming around the biggest gypsy community in the world. As a whole, Skopje was a very strange city to me. I’m not entirely sure why, but it was, and Shutka definitely added to that feel. Weird feels aside, this wander was one of the major highlights of my Balkans bouncing, and I’d put it on your list of places to explore if you ever plan a trip to Skopje. It’s not to be missed! My only ‘regret’ is that I didn’t get to see actual wedding season in full swing. Gypsy weddings are supposed to be SOMETHING ELSE.

Perhaps the best part of my Shutka story didn’t even happen in Shutka, but upon returning back to wifi to tell Lambchops about my day and visit to a gypsy home. While he was most likely storming through his apartment with a heavy sweat and pace, telling me to come back down to Earth and that I should never ever trust a gypsy and that I’m lucky I’m still alive, I was all laughs, thought his concern was precious, and happy that I had an excellent, albeit strange day.

And voila! Have you ever visited Shutka, or any other gypsy villages on your travels? Do you think I’m a nut job like The Greek did, for going into the home of a gypsy? Tell me your woes in the comments.