Beginner Hitchhiking In Macedonia

No, you’ve got it all wrong.  This is not the “inevitable” hobofication of Before Your Job Kills You.  Don’t listen to those “top financial analysts” that have been all over the news lately, claiming that BYJKY is neither solvent, nor anything resembling the leading media enterprise it claims to be.  They’re wrong, I tell ya’.

You see, there comes a time in every world traveller’s career when he or she must stop being a huge pussy, and start seeking proper challenges.  Things that make one feel alive, and possibly look like a hobo by association, even if one is a leading media enterprise, despite all news outlets universally insisting that’s bullshit.

 

Lies.

 

A Call To Adventure, or Just Not Getting The Stupid Bus

 

Long Term Travel is always rewarding in one way or another, but in the age of the Internet, AI and all that mental health eroding fun, it’s entirely possible to find yourself sleepwalking through the experience.  You strap on a backpack, label it an adventure, talk about exploration and pushing boundaries.  But then you arrive in your weird, foreign destination, only to realise that it isn’t actually that weird or foreign at all.

Cities you assumed were forever trapped in the 1970s, have in fact joined the rest of the world in 2017 and have numerous multi storey shopping malls.  Tourist infrastructure is so well developed that you can just end up just moving from hostel to hotel to hostel, stepping along well trodden routes, going on organised tours, and solely using reliable mass transit systems to get about.  There are apps and websites to take care of any complication, and it’s more or less impossible to get lost if you have a phone.  You don’t even need to worry about having your phone stolen anymore, because everyone else already has the Samsung Galaxy Note 78976, anyway.  How do people afford these things?

Oh right, jobs.

Everything feels a bit too banal and easy.  Okay sure – You may see an architectural delight or two, or meet some fascinating humans.  Like someone that was born in Japan, and has parents from Russia and Syria, and grandparents from Brazil and Norway, meaning they are the most exotic and captivating life form you’ve ever witnessed, until they open their mouth that is, when you discover that they went ahead and learnt English in Birmingham, in turn undoing generations of compound sexiness.

But hey, each to their own.

You might encounter a bunch of freaks like yourself, get a tan in October and eat a face-scrunchingly sweet pastry dish, that is bewilderingly considered a main course.  You can share some jokes, drink the revered local spirit that just tastes like gasoline, and have a hilarious cliche ridden night out with an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman.

Don’t get me wrong, travel is great.  For all the highs and the lows, it never fails to amuse in one way or another.  Whether you like it or not, stuff happens and a new thing is always round the corner.

But on repeat, the process can leave you feeling a touch empty.  What is supposed to be an opportunity for boundless exploration can unexpectedly become an international conveyor belt of complacency.

The unsexy truth is this: the world is developing at such a rapid pace, that everything is becoming easier and less exciting.  From country to country, Globalisation is making urban areas kind of samey.  And in my mind, that is significantly diminishing the experience of seeing a new country.

What to do?  Maybe jump in a time machine and go back 20 years when the world was still scary and weird?  Or perhaps, go to Africa?  Both options have their challenges.

What if you want to travel in developed nations?  Well, as far as I can see there are two options.  You can:

a) Enjoy the 21st century comforts of your destination.  Shut up and get on with it.

OR

b) Change something, you idiot.

The more you travel (especially in urban areas), the more you will want to strip away layers of predictability and expectation.  You might have to shun hostels and phones in favour of walking for 4 days through a canyon with a tent and a paper map.  And then camp on the edge of a ravine so wolves won’t eat you.  You’ll need to point in a random direction and say, “I’m going that way!”, and start walking.  Even if that is the slowest, most dangerous option.  It most certainly is.

I mean, you don’t have to do any of those things.  Rather, the challenge is to keep that risk-reward fire burning.  It’s not so much about being a pretentious dickhead that insists upon living ‘off the beaten track’ or ‘only hanging out with the locals’, but ensuring that you’re entire trip isn’t spent getting shitfaced with a garish herd of Australians at the hostel bar.

For me at least, what makes travel worthwhile in the long run is the the uncertainty, and the fear of the unknown.  You need to mix things up and keep yourself from becoming a useless turd that is living out a terrible straight-to DVD Travel Comedy.

On this most recent jaunt, I’ve met a host of people embarking on challenging travel.  Folks hiking for days through the mountains, traversing vast chunks of the earth by bikes, and boats, and foot.  There was even one guy walking from France to Jerusalem.  Walking.  The whole way.  What a fantastically arrogant plan.  What is it with the French and their fearless travellers?

And then there is me.  I’m the dude that got the bus.  I’m the middle class traveller who read some advice on the blog, and followed it.  Honestly, I’m getting a bit fed up of having the same conversation every few days:

Stranger in hostel:  ‘I was rollerskating through the mountains and then an Albanian family picked me up and housed me for the week, and we had traditional wine and cheese, and then they invited me on their annual holiday to a hidden village that no one knows about, and I went to their son’s wedding, and now we’re friends forever.

Me: ‘Oh, cool.  I walked from the bus station and then got pizza over the road.’

 

Admittedly, I’m not an adventurer.  I may talk a big game during the preamble, but it’s not me.  It’s not in my blood to live perpetually at the edge of my comfort zone, despite every godforsaken self-help sorcerer insisting that’s where the magic happens.

I’m not interested in travelling to every country and I’m not driven by competition, or marketing gimmicks.

 

Still want to backflip, though

 

I don’t need or want that.  I’m simply bored.  I just want travel to be difficult again.

I’m also extremely jealous of inspired by all the swashbuckling individuals I’ve been meeting.  I’m feeling a serious urge to return to the fundamentals of the age old traveller, DIYing his way from place to place.  However pretentious that may sound.

If nothing else, I want the travel part of travel – the part where you move between destinations, to be a bit more interesting.  Not just stumbling on and off Buses.

You know, I’m sick to death of Buses.  Urrrghhh.  Jesus Christ, am I sick of Buses.

Buses are slow, lumbering automobile creatures that painfully drag people across countries for at least 4 hours.  Every journey takes at least 4 hours.  If the time it takes to get between two places is one hour, you can bet your ass there will be 3 hours worth of smoke breaks and unexplained time wasting.  Buses are inefficiently reliable.  They’ll get you exactly where you want to go, but you’ll hate everyone and everything by the time the journey is complete.

I used to enjoy Bus journeys.  Long ones, and even longer ones.  But lately they’ve started crushing my soul.  After doing a ten hour round trip on a motorbike through the mountains of Northern Thailand earlier this year, it dawned on me just how much you miss when you’re being ferried about by mass transportation systems.

There is just nothing rewarding or challenging about getting on a Bus.  Which is kind of the point, I know.

Hey Chris, you’re probably thinking by now.  ‘What is your fucking point?  Get to the sodding point, please.’

Well reader, Let me tell you a story.  A story about a travelling man who attempts to address his despondency by hitchhiking between two places.  It’s not much of a story, but read it anyway.  You have to read it otherwise the grand preamble will count for nothing.

 

A Hitchhiker in Macedonia

 

I’m sitting in a cafe in Skopje, having a smoke break and time wasting, for reasons that I can’t explain.  And by smoke break I mean inhaling second hand smoke from everyone smoking in the no-smoking area.  I don’t know why smoking is still awesome in this part of the world, but it is.  Everyone wears a leather jacket and chain smokes like they’re trying to channel James Dean.

It was never my intention to return to this city, but my original plan fell by the wayside.  I need to get back to Ohrid, but cannot face the thought of getting on another bus.  Not today.  So I decide that I’m going to get there by other means, even if it kills me.  I briefly entertain the idea of rollerskating, but swiftly conclude that 170km of rollerskating through the mountains (with my backpack no less) is kind of gimmicky, and more importantly, a one way ticket to certain death.

Idioms aside, certain death is not on the agenda.

 

I decide upon Hitchhiking.  It’s a sudden, uncontested decision, since the more time and weight I tend to give to an decision, the more I want certain death to arrive and remove the decision for good.

In terms of DIY Travel, Hitchhiking is entry level.  Not too challenging, but not the stupid Bus, either.  Great, let’s do it.

It should be noted that this was my first ever attempt at hitchhiking.  For someone who has done a few long-term trips abroad, this could be considered surprising.  But it always just seemed more obvious to pump some of my tourist money into the shambolic economy that I have chosen as my destination once more, and get on the stupid Bus.  I’m the Bus guy.

Also, I was raised to believe that getting in a stranger’s car would end in my kidneys being sold on the Dark Web.

But it turns out that most people are much better than that.  Go figure.

 

****

 

It’s 9am, and I make the unwarranted assessment that I need to be in Ohrid before 5pm, otherwise I will be eaten by Wolves.  Call it hyperbole, but worst case scenarios are important for motivating oneself.  Better get going then.

10am.  I’m sitting in another cafe a few metres down the road, eating a Chocolate Croissant.  I fear death less than I like Chocolate Croissants, apparently.

10:15am.  Phase 1 of the tentatively titled ‘Operation Ohrid By 5 or Eaten By Wolves‘ involves the procurement of a big red marker pen, and a cardboard sign.  The first part is easy enough, but obtaining signage material proves more challenging.  I could simply buy a large sheet of cardboard from the supermarket, but that doesn’t feel in keeping with the spirit of hitchhiking.  Therefore I resort to inconspicuously peeking around shop fronts and dumpsters like a hobo.  Like a hobo, as in mimicking the behaviour.  Opposed to being a hobo, which I am certainly not.  So we’re clear.

10:30am – I’ve got my big silly sign, and I’m on my way.  Phase 2 involves getting the bus.  Yeah, I know.  But as it has been pointed out to me by the hostel proprietor, attempting to hitch a lift from the centre of a city is not part of the hitchhiking playbook.  Hitchhiking from a city centre ends in a fight with a Taxi Driver.

He also tells me to jump the Bus because ‘the bus fee system here is stupid and nonsensical, and you’re from England, so they won’t care’.  Which seems both logical and financially considerate advice.  I opt to integrate his advice into my plan.

It takes me almost two hours to find the correct bus to my starting spot.  The back end of this time frame is spent in a shopping mall on the edge of town, deliberating whether to put an end to this experiment in favour of the new Blade Runner movie.  I’ve already walked 6km is the scorching mid day sunshine,  I’m dripping with sweat, and am at the end of my patience.  We haven’t even got close to the ceremonial raising of the thumb, and I’m already thinking about throwing in the towel.

But not today.

Today I’m overcome with a steely determination.  And crucially, my towel is somewhere at the bottom of my bag.  It’s decided, I’m going to make this happen.  If Columbus can cross the Atlantic on a shitty 14th century boat, then there’s no reason I can’t sit in some stranger’s truck for a few hours.  I puff my chest out like the explorer that I certainly am, and gaze out to the horizon.  Except the horizon is a branch of Mango.  Right, I’m in a Shopping Mall.  A pack of tweens start pointing at me and laughing, so I abruptly exit the building.

1pm – I’ve arrived at my port of departure.

I drop my bags and face the oncoming traffic.  I adopt a power stance, and my thumb gloriously ascends to the Gods, with sign in tow.  Here we are – I am hitchhiking.  And I feel like an absolute tool.

This is without doubt the worst part of hitching a lift.  The best bit is where you sit in a cafe eating a Chocolate Croissant, imaging yourself hitching a lift.  The worst bit is where you actually have to ingloriously stand at the side of the road, feeling like a tool, trying to hitch a lift.

Ten minutes pass and my ‘TAKE ME HERE FOR FREE’ proposition isn’t attracting any suitors.  REJECTION, REJECTION, REJECTION.  Welcome to Rejection City.

What the hell, man.  This isn’t working.  WAHHHHH!  I’m already on the verge of a raging hissy-fit.  You can add impatience to my shortcomings.

Five more minutes go by, and I’m so busy muttering expletives under my breath that I barely notice that a car has pulled over, and is waiting for me.

PANIC.

I sprint over and open the passenger door.  “OHKIID!?”, I yell with a reek of desperation.

The middle-aged man nods his head assuredly.  “Ohrid”, he responds.

 

 

A Business Class Hitchhiker In Macedonia

 

Following my long preachy introduction about the pursuit of challenging, DIY travel, this is the part where I tell you that I was picked up by a rich dude in an Audi.

But that ain’t my fault.  In life, you take what is given to you.  Sometimes it’s a slice of Bread, other times it’s a Fillet Mignon with Sauteed Mushrooms and Shoulder Massage.

The TL;DR on my first attempt at hitchhiking is this:

******

Milchieu (my spelling, not his) is a husband, a father of three children, and owner of a large transportation business in Macedonia.  He lives in Ohrid but has been in Skopje meeting with transport ministers, and is now on his way home.

When I envisioned this mini-adventure in my head, I saw myself sitting next to a filthy truck driver, or an animal that would spend the entire journey slobbering all over my face.  But Milchieu fit none of my stereotypes – he had no animals in his car and the only kind of filthiness that he exhibits is of the rich variety.

It quickly becomes apparent to me that I’ve maxed out my hitchhiking luck purely by the comfort of my seat – the automotive vessel that Milchieu has picked me up in is an Audi A4, a white fancy looking thing that, whilst not being a Jaguar, or a Lamborghini (or whatever mega rich douchebags drive), screams made it bro.

Okay sure, I know very little about cars.  But I know the difference between a vehicle that costs managerial money, and one that is 60 years old and could explode at any moment.  I was expecting to be picked up by something close to the latter.

 

Furthermore, this hitch would take me the whole way.  I had anticipated it being a two or three leg journey where I’d have to eat lunch in nowheresville, and spend a few hours sitting next to a cow.  I got lucky with this one.

In collecting this exhausted, scruffy foreigner from the side of the road, Milchieu immediately laid waste to all my profiling, and restored my rapidly fading belief in the Hitchhiking system (Course, Ebook, Youtube channel coming soon).

Milchieu speaks Macedonian as his native language, and only some very broken English.  Which – seeing as though Macedonian is amongst my 387 weakest languages – means our dialogue is reduced to conversations of just five or six words.  So to not appear rude, I find myself doing a lot of agreeable nodding and affirmative statements such as , “Oh yes, certainly” and “Oh right, that’s interesting”, despite having no clue what he is talking about.

We are briefly able to piece together a conversation about family, enough for me to ascertain that his daughter is getting married in 10 days time.  As if being given a free 170km ride isn’t enough, I quietly anticipate an invitation to the spectacle.  While my principle objective is to reach Ohrid, I figure that if me and Milchieu are going to be super friends from here on out, then guest of honour status is the only reasonable way forward.

But it is not forthcoming.  Not even an invite to the after party.  But whatever, Milchieu – no hard feelings.  I’ll still send you a Christmas card.  AND A LUMP OF COAL.  I mean, I fort we were bros?  Perhaps he’s going to mail me the invite.  Or maybe I’ve completely misread the situation.  I do that a lot.

If I was to describe Milchieu’s driving style with a single word, I’d have to go with ‘erratic’.  Unpredictable, perhaps.  For much of the journey he cruises in the slow lane, occasionally exchanging our steady progress for tempestuous bursts of urgency and impatience.  In one wild ten minute episode up through the mountains, he seems to recognise the fact that if we don’t make it to Ohrid in under three hours, then I can activate the NO QUIBBLE MONEY BACK GUARANTEE, and thus begins using the wrong lane and tearing through blind corners with reckless abandonment.

Approximately halfway through the trip we stop for coffee.  My attempts to pay for the (albeit, measly) 1.50 Euro bill in a desperate display of gratitude, are duly rejected.

As we sit next to each other at a roadside cafe silently drinking milky coffee, Milchieu devours a bag of roast chestnuts with the zeal of a man that hasn’t eaten in 3 weeks.  He repeatedly gestures me to take part in the feast, but my ever increasing feeling of awkwardness ensures I only nibble 2 or 3 of them.  I’m a polite motherfugga, you see.  When someone presents you with a ludicrously one sided deal involving free travel and coffee, you take it.  But going to town on the complimentary snacks?  It’s inappropriate.  It’s bad etiquette.

Our journey continues without a hitch (it’s a pun, dude) and we arrive in Ohrid shortly before sundown, thus concluding the least gruelling ‘first time hitchhiking’ story you’ll ever hear.

Milchieu drops me right in the town centre close to my hostel, because Milchieu, if you haven’t figured out by now, is a real stand up guy.

In parting, I deliver some (unsuitable) hand gestures in a desperate attempt to convey my appreciation, and wish his daughter all the best in matrimony.

“See you at the wedding, bro”, I say.

Milchieu gives me a confused look and drives off.

 

 

Conclusion – Helping Strangers and Other Lofty Ideas

 

Several months back a friend pointed out to me that some people are just willing to do things to help strangers, without expecting anything in return.  She said that in some cultures, it’s just how people behave.

I’ve always thought of myself as a generous person, but I can’t recall ever helping a stranger out in a significant way.  It’s not something that comes natural to me, as I’m a child of capitalism.  I mean, I’ve held doors for people and helped old grannies cross the road.  The cliche ‘nice guy’ stuff that gets you kudos from those who happen to be in the vicinity, but is then forever lost in the chasm of ‘things that happened last week’.

But carrying a stranger in my car across the country?  Hell no, I haven’t done that.  But maybe I need to.  If I’m ever behind a wheel and I see a hitchhiker, I will certainly consider helping them out.  Maybe we’ll stop for coffee, as well.

They call it Pay It Forward.  It’s the unwritten law of Good Deeds.  Some people tell you to Pay It Forward, others don’t.  Either way, you can’t just swallow their generosity and then piss off back to being greedy.  That’s not how it works.  You need to take that energy and input it into someone else’s life.  There is no time limit or criteria for who you help, but it has to be done.  (The exceptions are of course: Don’t give a wad of cash to Justin Bieber, and don’t give nuclear arms, if you have them, to Kim Jong Un.)

But giving, as wonderful as it is, is actually much easier than receiving.  If you a emotionally adept human with a conscience, then receiving can be awkward, especially from a total stranger.  There are some people who are great receivers, and will happily take everything given to them without remark – these people are commonly known as freeloaders.

A one-way transaction of kindness in my direction however, often feels like debt.  This is especially the case when there is a language barrier and you can’t fully express yourself.  So yeah, maybe I need to learn every language in the world.  I’ll add it to my to do list.

Is this the start of a new hitchhiking odyssey for me?  I doubt it.  All I know is that It certainly isn’t the last time I stick my thumb out and get in a stranger’s car.  Hopefully next time it’ll be A Bugatti Veyron that collects me, and we’ll stop at an all expenses paid luxury spa halfway through.  Or maybe I deserve to be kidnapped and forced to work in slave labour for several days before being kicked in the nuts and thrown out the car, 100 miles in the opposite direction.

I’m open to whatever, because that’s what hitchhiking is about.  Perhaps next time, I’ll just walk the whole way.  England to China.  Or I’ll do it by Bike, or Boat, or Rickshaw.  Who knows.

Maybe I’ll just get the stupid Bus.


ADDENDUM

Part two of this experiment was a comprehensive bust.  One driver even mimicked a gunshot in my direction as I held my sign out.

I had to get the stupid Bus.  Energy balance restored.