I can confidently say up to this point our trip has run very smoothly. So smooth in fact that I have been wondering in the back of my mind for quite a few weeks now when something is going to, quite simply, go wrong. Not that I am a pessimist or that I believe that when things are going well something is bound to happen to change that. But traveling always has its peaks and valleys and Alys and I have been coasting for quite some time now on peaks. Sure there have been days of sadness, nostaligia and general flatlands, but nothing really stands out as being disasterous. Until, well, we reached the Balkans. Alys knew, more than myself, that navigating the Balkans was going to be a triffle more difficult than the other countries we have traveled through. What we did not expect was an accumulation of unfortunate events that fed off one another to provide us with what we will now refer to on this trip "as the low point", for lack of better words.
We got to the bus station in Budva, Montenegro. I had an idea of a camp ground that we could stay at so we stopped at tourist information to ask where exactly it was and other general questions. The girl didn't know. Every question I asked, she just didn't know. Oh, and there is no map of Budva. I was frustrated about there being no map until I realized that there were no street names. You can't have a map unless you know what the streets are. Jess and I set off to find the camping by ourselves. I left her in shade at it was hotter than (insert whatever you think is super stupidly hot here) and we had our heavy packs on us. After an hour of running around the town, I went back to Jess with nothing. I had no idea where it was. Feeling hopeless, I told Jess, "I'm not going to cry, but I am going to sulk for ten minutes." Just then, a guy in a hot pink shirt walked up and offered to help us find the camp ground. He didn't speak any English but he gestured well and smiled. He carried my pack for me (I was crabby. Jess was very nice to him to make up for my sour-puss face.) and within 15 minutes we found the camping. It wasn't much, but it was home. We ended up hanging out with the guy a couple times, drawing pictures and speaking in baby English ("oops!", "super!", "welcome!").
So, a couple days into our time in Budva (a Eastern European version of Miami Beach) I woke up in the morning sick. SICKKKKK!! It was food poisoning of a sort. Jess and I can't account for where I got it as we had shared everything we ate the day before. It couldn't be the water, because we had drinking that for days ahead of time. Either way, I have never been that sick in my life. In addition, of course, we were camping in not so great conditions. I was between the toilets and the hot stuffy tent for the morning. I cried because I wanted my mommy (I still do, mum!) and because Jess kept making me drink water. I can't really thank my travel partner enough for her care and understanding that day. Jess took down the camp while I laid, miserable, on a bench in the shade. We had to get out of that campground because we knew it wasn't clean enough really. We took a cab to another campground, which was worse that the first by far. By this point, I had nothing in my body anymore. Water was coming straight back out, and I had not enough energy to even stand up. We took a bus back to town, found an over-priced pension and I fell asleep. Jess kept me hydrated, and we were never in an emergency type situation, but for three days after the first day I barely ate and had no energy. I am skipping ahead though...Unhappy with Budva, sick of being sick, and feeling desperate, we bought tickets for an overnight bus to Macedonia.
The bus that was to take us from Budva to Skopje was 3 hours late to begin with. We had dealt with late transport before and this really didn't concern us, except that the bathroom situation at the bus station was grim and not ideal for Alys in her recovery. As we waited at the bus station we were told by a couple of Serbians also waiting, not to expect a toilet on the bus either. They are often there but the bus drivers lock them so they dont have to clean them. They said it is common for the bus to only stop 1 or 2 times in a 12 hour ride (for toilet or otherwise) which was the supposed length of our trip to Macedonia and not to drink much water to aviod having to use an nonexsistent toilet. It seemed Alys was well enough at this point to be able to handle the situation.
Once on the bus that arrived at 11 pm, (due originally at 8pm) we drove about an hour in a crazy fashion, whipping around curves, I thought I was going to throw up. Alys was more likely to throw up, but isn't quite as sensitive to motion. It didn't help in the sligthest that a drunk man was on the bus, tearing through can after can of beer that proceeded to spill and roll about on the floor. Stopping at a bus station barely an hour into the trip, we were told that the bus driver would not continue to drive the bus as there was some sort of water leak (Alys and I assumed coolent from what we gathered by the discussions and gestures in Serbian). Until another bus came we were all stranded at a bus station waiting for another bus that may or may not arrive.
I had recently read a short story of a plane crash, where the survivors ended up turning on eachother because of the desperatness of their situation. I saw it happening in front of us as the hours passed at the ugly, desolate bus station. The drunk man, by this point tanked, turned on the bus driver and started screaming at him. The bus driver yelled back. From what we gathered through gestures and expressions, they were mad. And they were going to fight. A cop, apparently policing the bus station, showed up and calmed everyone down. Still, no one knew what was going on. There was still no toilet (unless you count bushes and the cement plants), no food, no water, and no order. No hope. Jess and I elected to get in the broken bus and catch some crappy sleep.
Things were looking pretty hopeless and we didnt think any bus was going to come. So we and a few others slept on the bus as it was parked and we all just waited. At one point the bus driver left in the night and we thought we were really really stuck this time. But we learned later that he had left his passport in Budva and we would have had to trun around anyway even if the bus hadn't broken down. So 5 hours later another bus comes and we scramble to get a seat. By now it is 5 in the morning and there have been no bathrooms or access to water or food (luckily we thougth of this and brought a lot). I just used the parking lot as my toilet, quite pleased with my ability to go just about anywhere with no shame (Alys was a little more subtle and suffered for it, I think :) Boarding the second bus we discovered the route the bus was to take was in fact through Albania. This route was the one we were really trying to avoid. Apparently (as we found out days later) there are about 4 bus companies that travel from Budva to Skopje. All of them, excpet for the bus we were lucky enough to board, took a route through Kosovo that avoided Albania. We were sold this particular ticket because this bus comapny was the only company based in Montenegro. The rest were from Macedonia and other boarding countries. The bus station in Montenegro had not given us an option, only sold us the ticket that would, in turn, benefit their economy.
The Albanian border greated us with a dirt road and a small shack meant to clear us through customs. It was at this exact moment that our generous bus decided to bestow upon us another gift: the biggest flat tire I have ever seen. So we all had to get out and wait for over 30 minutes while the bus driver fixed it. We crossed over into Albania just as the sun was rising at the time when we were supposed to be at our destination in Macedonia and we still had 8 hours left of the trip.
Albania was another world to the parts of Europe we had experienced; women in veils leading donkies on the dirt road highway, old men pushing carts of mellons in the twilight. My head bobbed against the window in a sleepless stuphor as I tried to absorb this world before me. We have found from our research that Americans are always asking if they can even go to Albania. the country is still quite poor and Westerners are for the most part scared of poverty. So for those fellow travelors debating the question to go Albania, just avoid it. There is nothing there and the buses that go through Kosovo are much nicer. All the time the drunk guy was behind me breathing down my neck litterally, and mumbiling in Serbian. Luckily there were some really nice English speakers that were there translating for us. We made one rest stop in Albania at a restaurant that was having what seemed like three wedding parties at once. The bathrooms were the worst I have seen yet on the trip. There was urin everywhere around the porcelin holes in the ground and all these women shoving one another to get to them.
Once at the Albanian/Macedonian border, it took the bus 2 hours to get through. The Albanians forced us to buy health insurance for 5 Euros which was kind of funny considering we were already at the exit and it wouldn't do us any good. It was our first taste of how much Americans are disliked in the world since there were 3 Americans and one Aussie on the bus and we were the only ones who had to pay to cross. Once over the border and into Macedonia we breathed a sigh of relief. We were safe!!!! And there was only 1 hour to our location.
We got off the bus with a lovely married couple we met (a Macedonian man and a Finnish woman) who took us under their wing and foudn us lovely accomidation in an apartnemnt right by the lake. Actually we shared an apartment the first night with them and moved into seperate rooms the next day. We still hang out with them and really enjoy their company. Today over lunch we all laughed at how awful the bus ride was. Anyways, moral is we were safe, met a great couple, and will always have plenty of water on a bus ride in the Balkans.