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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Captivating Kotor

If you’ve read any of those lists circulating lately about the Top 10 destinations you MUST get to this year, then you’ve most certainly heard of Kotor – only you may have no real idea as to where it is, because I surely did not prior to the summer. In continuing along my Balkans Bouncing, Kotor came as one of the most beautiful and invigorating suggestions, and I’m so happy that I went.

Kotor is an exquisite and still fairly untouched-by-tourists seaside town on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro; nestled between Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina to the west and Albania to the south. Only a hop and an offered day-trip away from Dubrovnik, Kotor is virtually the opposite in terms of what you get. Where Dubrovnik is crazy expensive and crawling with tourists from all over the globe (mostly Game of Thrones fans), Kotor is still mellow and just beginning to get traction from commercial cruise liners. I’ll say it now though, it’s only a matter of time until that bay is jam-packed with Titanics. Once people hear about it the treasure chest will come flying open. So, get there now!

Initially, Kotor was ‘planned’ as a one night stay, which quickly turned into 4 nights worth. During my time there I found out I wasn’t alone in this scenario – which could be attributed to the adorably pushy front desk boy with the big brown eyes telling you to stay so you can check out an abandoned building together, or the straight up relaxation, views, and slow change of pace that are so very welcome when your back is killing from backpacks and cramped bus seats.

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So, if you’re in the market for a treat to your eyes, a little burn for your thighs, and some relaxing vibes, then Kotor is just for you!

EYES

Every angle of Kotor is unbelievable, so your eyes are bound to be in constant wonder. Whether it’s from admiring the walled city from the outside, wandering amidst the old city walls, or climbing up to the top of the UNESCO protected Kotor Fortress, you will not be disappointed. I spent a lot of my time just wandering around all the little Medieval alleyways reminding myself to keep looking up.

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City guard shark

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I also ventured outside the old town to walk along the Adriatic and try my hardest to tackle at least one abandoned building break-in, which unfortunately to my dismay was an unsuccessful feat. There’s just something about a place left in mysterious disarray that really gets me excited, and well, in Kotor there happens to be the old Hotel Fjord. Sometime in the mid-90s the owner had money problems, forcing the prime property to never see the check-in of one single visitor. When I went to try and jump a fence, I soon noticed that there was absolutely no way in, and later found out that along with the surrounding fence, the authorities had set up cameras to prevent squatters from stealing old mattresses. Why that matters is beyond me, but I was quite displeased.

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The closest I got was to the trash-laden pool at the sea’s edge, where people basked just a stone’s throw away.

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THIGHS

Perhaps the biggest must-do in Kotor is the hike to the top of the fortress. While I am by no means an avid hiker, I do enjoy the view from the top, and the feeling of worked out thighs. Typically the hike is supposed to take a couple hours to ascend, and significantly less to get back down, however, my Kotor friend and I took a leisurely five hours to reach the view point – which was worth every single second!

Instead of entering through the designated entrance within the city walls, Michaela had been tipped off my the cute front desk boy that there’s a quicker (and free) way to start the climb from just outside the walls. So we took his tip and got on our way.

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The hike up was excruciatingly hot and picturesque, causing us to stop and disrobe or pose for photos with our magnificent backdrop around nearly every turn. When we got about half way up there was an abandoned church just nestled into the mountainside. The inside was all eroded with time, with colors from old frescos faintly decorating the walls and ceiling.

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It was around here that we reached a fork in the road. To the right was the entrance to the city wall path, and to the left was a suspicious sign saying cold drinks and fresh goat cheese. Initially we thought ‘nahh’ we don’t want to get killed on the side of a massive mountain, but then turned around because why not. And it was the sweetest detour we could have made!

We arrived at the home tucked high on the mountainside where a family has lived for 40 years making their own cheese, selling refreshments on the fortress path to sweltering hikers, and whose children ‘commute’ down the mountain to school everyday. We relaxed, watched the women care for their goats, ate delicious goat cheese from said goats, and enjoyed some of the most spectacular views my eyes have ever been privy to.

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After almost getting stampeded by a gaggle of wild goats and a brief photoshoot, we made it inside the walls and successfully mounted the mountain. Feast your eyes on that Pterodactyl call!

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VIBES

When you’re done feeling the burn, it’s time to max, relax, and chillax; and there’s no better place to do just that if you’re bouncing through the Balkans. While the sea is overrun with cruisers on their daily stop-off, the shore also has this gorgeous Mediterranean vibe that just can’t be messed with. Not to mention, if you’re a beach goer used to riding and diving in waves, and dodging from impending shark attacks, you will not get that here, or really anywhere in these parts. The serene waters are perfect for playing, swimming, wading, and always people watching – which this group of 60s-ish men playing a game of dive & catch really brought home for me.

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When you’ve surely worked up an appetite there is no shortage of fresh fish restaurants littering the old town. After my time in Bosnia and Serbia I seriously meated myself out, arriving in Croatia and Montenegro on a purely fish kick which did not disappoint. I treated myself to a couple fresh fish feasts at one of the oldest fish restaurants in Old Town Kotor, Scala Santa, which also happened to be just across from my amazing hostel. I left with a very happy tummy each night.

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When I wasn’t busy eating or basking, I was wandering (of course). A couple times I happily stumbled on some pop up antique collections, one which was so crazy to me. This guy was selling hundreds or thousands of year old coins and weapons that his father had found in the surrounding areas. It was mind-boggling to me since I have only seen such artifacts in museums; but here I was able to hold them and really examine them with an up close eye. Definitely my kind of enjoyment!

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Kotor is on all those lists for a very good reason, as it’s a little gem craving to be visited. It’s got the perfect temperament for romantic getaway or solo jaunt and anything in between.

Have you visited Kotor or anywhere else in Montenegro? What were your thoughts? Have I persuaded you to add this magical place to your travel bucket list? I hope so! 

Falling In Love With Sarajevo

Up until this past August, Sarajevo was a city that sat in my mind as a scary place. Aside from the obvious places that ring scary in the mind of most people, Sarajevo was in the company of Copenhagen; a place that I still need to get my tuchous to. That sounds absurd, right? Well, why? You ask? Because of a couple books I read when I was a wee lass – Zlata’s Diary and Number the Stars. Both stories take place during wartime in the two cities, and well, my 5th grade brain maintained those images 20 years later. The power of a child’s mind!

I still remember laying on Lambchops’ couch asking if Sarajevo is safe to go to; and now when I look back I think that was such a stupid question. Honest, but stupid. For one, that war ended 20 years ago, and the city has truly risen above the siege they were under for 4 years between 1992 and 1996. It is one of the most beautiful, welcoming, and peaceful cities I’ve visited. And well, now I’m here to put Sarajevo on the map, as it so quickly burrowed its way into my heart.

I was in Sarajevo for 4 days, and honestly I could have stayed longer enjoying Baklava and Bosnian coffee on the daily. Since I didn’t stay longer, and I’d like to relive my glorious memories, I’m going to share some of the highlights that made the city so unique and memorable for me, so maybe you too can plan your own getaway to the Eastern European Unknown.

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The line joining the Eastern Old Town with the Western new Sarajevo.

SEE

For starters, the first activity I did after arriving was attend a walking tour. I’m a big advocate of these since I like to learn about the city and then dive in on my own with some background. This wasn’t like just any other walking tour I’ve been on in other cities. It was super captivating to me as it was led by a guy named Neno of Sarajevo Walking Tours. Neno was around my age, so he was 8 or 9 when the war broke out, and he lived in a shelter inside a building for the 4 years Sarajevo was under siege. Listening to his own accounts of what happened and how life was during that time was so fascinating, and made the tour that much more enriching. Not to mention, he was so cute and I had a mini crush on him (and got a little excited when I kept running into him throughout the rest of the day). But seriously, go on his tour if you find yourself there. So much knowledge and a little piece of eye-candy. Win win!

Sights Not To Be Missed: The Sarajevo Roses around the city to commemorate the lives lost in blast zones, Pijaca Markale market where the biggest bombing of the siege took place, the Latin Bridge where the events leading up to WWI were set in motion with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the Vijecnica old City Hall building, boasting exquisite Austro-Hungarian architecture, the Eternal flame dedicated to the victims of WWII, the memorials to the slaughtered children of the siege and Srebrenica Massacre, and then drop your coins into the tomb of the Seven Brothers which holds a wealth of superstitions and luck to the people of Sarajevo.

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These Sarajevo Roses are scattered all throughout the city and commemorate places where at least 3 people died from shrapnel blasts.

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Pijaca Markale, where the largest attack on civilians occurred. All names of those lost are on a plaque on the back wall.

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Beautiful Vijecnica was severely destroyed during the war, and was once a library and the City Hall. 

VISIT

The Tunnel of Hope (Tunel Spasa) was Sarajevo’s lifeline to its own Bosnian territory while the Serbians held them under siege. It took 4 months of around the clock work in 1993 for it to be built, beginning from both sides and meeting in the middle, and remained protected during its duration as it was strategically built under the city’s airport being protected by the United Nations. The home where one end of the tunnel began has since been turned into a museum dedicated to the struggle and salvation that the people of Sarajevo fought through, and houses a portion of the tunnel used to flee their death camp of a city to the span of mountains not under Serbian control. For the duration of the war, approximately 400,000 lives were saved and countless supplies were brought into the city. Visitors are welcome to visit the home, view the shrapnel battered walls, and walk through the remaining 25m of the 1km tunnel.

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Tip: You can definitely reach the tunnel on your own via tram and bus combination, however I would suggest booking a guide through your hotel/hostel/travel agency in town who can take you out there, as it’s a bit of a trek outside the main city. My guide wasn’t the best, but I found him to be quite interesting as a person, as his family fled Sarajevo just before the siege, he grew up in Dubai, moved to Mexico, and then back to Sarajevo. His take on being Bosnian was very multifaceted and he lacked connection with his city, country, people, and language, having been absent during those years. He also looked like sista’s boyfriend, so I liked the guy quite a bit.

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The Jewish Cemetery of Sarajevo was fascinating, and also happens to be the second oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe just behind Prague. I went here on my extended private tour after visiting the Tunnel of Hope with a gaggle of wonderful Polish ladies. The cemetery has tombstones primarily of Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain in the late 1400s early 1500s and resettled in Sarajevo. They look like they’re made of slabs of rock, or the original iMac computer, with the details painted on them and it’s a bit unreal to go here and walk through. They’re in a complete disarrayed mish-mosh of no order. I love visiting cemeteries, so visually it was quite surreal to see tombs so old and so worn from time and shrapnel. It was really beautiful in a creepy way. You also have a great view of the city below and a clear view of the Holiday Inn hotel where journalists stayed during the war.

Fun Fact: Snipers during the war used to perch out here to stake their claims on ‘Sniper Alley’ from above.

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Some other Jewy places that I visited worthy of note were the Ashkenazi Synagogue which is the only one in Bosnia, as only about 600-900 Jews remain, and the Jewish Museum, which is housed in the oldest synagogue in Bosnia & Herzegovina, dating back to 1581. I also checked out an exhibit about the Srebrenica Massacre that happened in the town of Srebrenica in July of 1995. Approximately 9,000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys were murdered in territory that was said to be protected by the United Nations, but the siege proved otherwise – hence coining the term ‘United Nothing’. This exhibit was incredibly moving and I can’t even believe that people are capable of such horrible atrocious crimes against humanity.

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Sights Not To Be Missed: I also suggest visiting Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque located in the center of the Old Town. It was my first time stepping into a mosque, and you must have your legs covered and throw a shmata on your head before entering. It’s also really interesting to watch all the men and women gather on the hour to pray. Of course you’ll also want to get a view of this stunning city from high above, and the place to go is the Yellow Fortress, nestled high on the mountaintop. From here you can see the hundreds of white spiked cemeteries littering the city and everything that was once on lockdown from the eyes who were locking it down. It’s especially beautiful at sunset.

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Call to prayer on the hour, every hour. Men are on the right, women on the left.

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THE spot to spend sunset in Sarajevo. If you go be sure to hike up through the cemetery and not via the steep road I cluelessly took, unless you want an adventure.

EAT

Eating ranks top of my list (this list is obviously in no particular order) when visiting some place new. To me it’s the perfect way to get in touch with a country, city, village, group of people. I always make a list of foods I’ve got to eat while in a new place, and Sarajevo was no different. While most food in Bosnia probably caused me a lot of premature heart cloggage, it was so damn delicious – especially, ESPECIALLY the baklava.

One of my daily rituals while in this quaint city was an afternoon pick-me-up on the Turkish ottoman’s of The Baklava Shop in the Old Town. I’d order a few pistascio, nutella, or whatever other flavor I was feeling, and a Bosnian coffee (which is literally the same as Greek, Turkish, and Serbian coffee). It comes served on a copper tray with a small coffee cup, kettle called a džezva, glass of cold water, and 2 sugar cubes. This combination made for the best afternoon recharge sesh while doing one of my favorite things – people watching.

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If you’re a fan of flaky savory pastries, then you must get yourself some Burek. A popular dish in those countries under former Ottoman rule, these Burek are filo dough pastries stuffed with anything from spinach, to potato, to meat, slathered with or without some sort of sour cream sauce, and consumed breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I was a fan of grabbing a small one for the road each morning, and guilty of even indulging later in the day, like I did here with the sweetest Polish girls I met in my hostel. They were (literally) to die for, and this spot was poppin’. Oh, and this plate cost like 50 cents.

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Other Foods Not To Be Missed: I’m a freak for stuffed cabbage, grape leaves, and the ever-present Shopska salad that is everywhere throughout the Balkans. If you too are a fan of stuffed vegetables be sure to try Japrak (stuffed grape leaves), Sarma (stuffed cabbage) or Punjene paprike (stuffed pepper). You’ll also find the cheapest way to eat in these parts is to order a fat plate of Cevapcicci – or small greasy sausages – that are so delish, but for me definitely too much and sent me into a hardcore meat detox for the next 2 months.

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Sarma, Shopska, & the Sarajevo Film Festival that I missed by a day.

SHOP

I haven’t been to Istanbul, but from what I’ve heard and imagined, Old Town Sarajevo is a little Istanbul. At its heart is Baščaršija, the bazaar that is a labyrinth of shop after shop on little streets that always reveal something new. I went to the bazaar nearly everyday and always stumbled on something new, whether it was an alley of copper and silver coffee wares, vintage treasures, traditional trinkets, or a trove of hookah cafes.

If you know me at all, you also know I’m a huge flea marketer. I seek them out nearly everywhere I go, and have found some of my greatest finds from local people selling old trinkets from the past. I stumbled upon a fantastic vintage shop sort of near my hostel just off a main road, and it was like a treasure chest exploded. There were old photos and postcards from WWII, old passports, war memorabillia, and tons and tons of ornamental trinkets. I happened to pick up an amazing old džezva with a little cut on the lip, which makes me love it even more. There’s definitely a story there!

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Endless amounts of English books, bras, underwear, and any other chatchki you could want being sold daily on the bridge over the river.

COULDA WOULDA SHOULDA

One thing I unfortunately missed which I’m super unhappy about is the abandoned bobsleigh track from the 1984 Winter Olympics. It sits high in the Trebević mountains and photos of it look SO amazing and right up my alley. I guess I’ll have to go back!  I knew there was a reason I missed it!

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Photo via yomadic.com

One thing I’ve learned about myself when it comes to really falling in love with a place is that I am absolutely enthralled and drawn to cities once torn by war and have this grave history that you’re always walking through. Places where you can still see the traces of their past and know that there’s a story there. I’ve never visited a place like Sarajevo, where shrapnel scars litter the city, buildings still show the signs of war, but most importantly, how they have turned those scars into a way to remember, honor those who lost their lives, and I guess keep as a reminder so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Have you visited or lived in Sarajevo? Were there any other sites that you saw that struck a chord with you? What were your thoughts about the city? If you haven’t been, have I convinced you to go? I hope so!

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.