Things became only more interesting in Macedonia.
After checking into the hostel in Skopje I contacted the US Embassy nurse. Although the doctor in Sofia had said the likelihood of rabies was very small, he still suggested I receive the shots. I contacted the nurse on her cell phone and it was costing me a lot of money so I asked if I could call her back on a regular line. She told me to call her back in 10 minutes as she was walking back to her office and she would think what to do. I called back every 10 minutes for the next hour and could not get through. I left two messages, one with the telephone number of the hotel. I stayed there two nights and she never called. The worst part was when I did first talk to her she asked me when I had been bitten and she told me “well, then it is too late.” And even then she never called me back. My first experience with a US Embassy nurse was not a good one.
Skopje was warm and dry. The Vadar River though was pretty full and gave the city it’s only real color. The dry grass along its banks, the ecru stone and red tile roofs of traditional areas, and the unfortunate modern structures all rather blended together. There were horses drinking from the river which seemed about as crazy a thing to see in a capital city of Europe; they might as well have been giraffes! What I remember most about Skopje were the rude whistles from men as I toured the old town, the games of chance – high stakes ball under shells – played on the Stone Bridge, and meeting GM from Australia. She arrived to share my room in the hostel as I awaiting the call that would never come from the Embassy nurse. We hit it off right away and chatted for hours until dinner, and then walked together to the new town for some alfresco dining, continuing to talk. She only stayed the one night, heading off to her next destination the following morning, but when she left it was as if we had known one another for a much longer time.
Next I headed to Ohrid, a town on the banks of the lake of the same name. Both the city and the lake are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the lake for its importance as a Biosphere Reserve and the city for its incredible cultural and architectural sites; it is the site of one of the oldest human settlements in Europe and the location of some pretty spectacular Byzantine churches. It was beautiful. The narrow, winding stone streets of the old town were spectacular. Yet I remember most seeing the US and NATO troops on leave from Kosovo.
I had originally planned to cross into Albania from Ohrid, but the closest I came was taking a bus to the Sveti Naum monastery and from there the return bus to Ohrid drove up to the Albanian border and then turned around. I had been trying to follow the news along the way and it seemed that the government was not functioning too well, so I decided to give it a miss and head south to Greece.
Happy Birthday to me. I am now in the Greek town of Florina after crossing the border from Macedonia. I took a bus from Ohrid to Bitola and from there a taxi to the border, then caught a taxi on the other side to Florina. I had intended to take a bus on to Kalambaka today. But I learned at 1 pm at the bus station there are only two buses a day at 8:30 am and 8:30 pm and the later bus would get me in at 12:30. So here I am celebrating my birthday in a hotel room in rainy border town Florina.
I missed the morning bus the next day too when I showed up at 8:15 am to discover that the bus had already departed. Another time change although I had traveled due south – an example of some political disagreements between countries even affecting the time! I was not impressed with Florina: my first impressions of Greece are not improving. The men all seem on the dirty side. They smoke, stare hard at women, and there are those gems with gold chains resting in the mound of chest hair visible because their shirts are unbuttoned so low. Loud arguments erupt everywhere for no apparent reason.
I skipped waiting again for a direct bus from Florina and opted to instead take the terribly draining four bus route to get to the town of Kastraki. The rain had let up; although it was still cloudy I could see the amazing rock formations that give Meteora its name. However, when I awoke this morning, it was raining once again. Therefore I decided to take the 3:20 bus to Ioannina, but spent the early part of the day going to see at least the biggest monastery. Even though standing across the chasm that separated the parking area from the monastery rock, I could barely make out anything. The fog certainly made things interesting, because standing on the edge of the cliff I could not see anything of what was below. Luckily the rain had stopped and for fifteen minutes the fog around the monastery disappeared and lo and behold there were two more monasteries perched atop their own needle-like rocks. I also lucked out in finding a Belgian couple with a car willing to give me a lift. They took me with them to a nunnery on another rock, and even on to Kalambaka, stopping to get my pack in Kastraki.
I had a brief overnight stop in Ioannina, where it continued to rain. Then I headed on to the island of Corfu. The island was beautiful but my visit was marred by the arrival of a large US Navy vessel that let loose hundreds of 20 something men on the unsuspecting town. I know they are young but that does not excuse their behavior. My first night here I had dinner out and I had sit next to a table of these men. They talked loudly about being laid and how big their d*cks are. They harassed the waitress. And when a small group of protestors arrived with a sign saying “Yankees Go Home,” the men went crazy yelling that Greece “would not even be a country without us.” On another day at a restaurant a table of them loudly rated the physical attributes of every single woman that passed by. I know I was not in a good place to hear and see these kinds of things. I had written in my journal just the day before about a Greek man harassing myself and three other women at a bus stop. I know that not every single one of those sailors was like that. Actually while sightseeing at the Old Fortress in town I fell in with five of them touring the castle and they were thrilled to hear I was from Virginia. At an Internet café I saw one of the officers of the ship. I screwed up the courage to talk with him and to tell him of my disappointment in the behavior I had seen and how it made me feel bad as a woman and an American. He very respectfully listened and thanked me for telling him.
Then came one of the craziest days of my trip.
I decided to take a cruise to Albania as a belated birthday gift to myself, to make up for Florina. On Monday I was at the port customs and immigration office at 8:30 as the boat was scheduled to depart at 9. At 10 minutest to 9 there is no sign of the boat, or any other passengers. “Don’t worry,” said an immigration official, “your boat leaves at half past 9.” At 9:15 no boat and no other passengers. I run around the corner to the ferry office to ask “where is the boat?” I was told the excursion was cancelled due to bad weather (and I was the only one they could not reach as I was staying in a cheap-o sailor hostel by the waterfront).
I return to the port to tell the officer the trip has been cancelled and to collect my passport. “You want to go to Albania?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. “Well, that boat over there is going to Albania.” “When,” I ask. “Now,” he replies. I ran back to the ferry office to get my tour refund, return to the port, my passport is stamped, and I leap onto the departing boat as the gangplank is pulled up. It is only once on board that I wonder – where in Albania is this boat going?
I confirm the boat is heading to the same destination as the tour and the other questions of “what am I doing?” and “what will I do when I get there?” fade away.
An hour and a half later we arrive in Saranda, Albania. This is when my problems began. Albania requires no visa but charges Americans a US$45 “border tax.” I was only going to be in Albania for 3 ½ hours, yet the immigration police insisted I pay this fee. I did not have that much money on me. The police were not quite sure what to do with me. A woman waved a paper in English with a bunch of crazy, arbitrary rates, but I caught something at the bottom about daily tourists. I was then taken to the police office and given an interpreter.
I looked at the rate paper again. It said “daily individual tourists can be admitted with a visa-free entrance fee of US$10.” This was translated to the police commander by two tour agents serving as my interpreters but the Comandante refused to believe either of them. The Comandante took me back to the boat and placed me under guard while he held on to my passport – I guess in case I tried to run away. A friendly English speaking taxi driver translated my story of woe for my two police guards and they agreed to take a picture with me.
Then the captain of the boat invited me over to the port café for a drink. The Comandante was a little upset to walk by and find my off the boat and enjoying a drink with several boat workers, but he had my passport and the men called out cheerfully to him, so he seemed to accept my expanded definition of imprisonment. I was told he was working hard to find a solution to my problem.
A few minutes later the Comandante came riding back with the friendly taxi driver and told me to get in the car. I was driven to the local police station where the police captain got out of the car and informed me the driver would take me wherever I wanted to go, while he held on to my passport. So I asked the driver to take me to Butrint, the UNESCO World Heritage Site roman ruins that had been on my original tour. I paid for this privilege for 7000 drachmas, which wile not a bargain was pretty good given I was not technically in the country. I also had to pay the Comandante a “helping fee.” But I did not pay the US$10.
After our trip he returned me to the port where the Comandante returned my passport and I was escorted to the boat back to Greece, my fan club waiving me a cheery goodbye.
So it worked out. I got into Albania. The taxi driver made money. The commander made a little money. I even got two stamps saying I went to Albania, although I guess not quite legally.