Riding In Jeeps With Strangers In Macedonia
The Macedonia town of Skopje disappeared from the rear-view mirror of our jeep about 9 miles ago. The road has become narrower and is starting to wind back and forth. My stomach is doing flip-flops. I glance over at Oliver who I met just a couple hours ago and marvel at the fact that he’s steering the jeep with one hand while flipping through his phone with the other.
Even though it seems it’d be hard to maintain control of the jeep driving like that, it doesn’t occur to me to be scared. Oliver has probably driven this route countless times. He loves the gas pedal. He’s taking me straight into the Karadžica Mountains where we’ll meet up with Jebda, a hunting guide and park ranger at Jasen Nature Preserve.
My stomach lurches with every turn of the steering wheel. I rummage in my backpack for the motion sickness pills and quickly swallow two with a gulp of water. I decide to put the pressure point terry bracelets on too. I stare straight ahead even though the scenery on all sides is a dense autumn foliage mural in myriad shades of red and yellow.
Oliver is on the phone speaking Macedonian. He’s telling someone that we’re almost there and I hear the words for “mud,” “road,” “clouds” and maybe “bread.” He laughs with one of those amazing belly laughs that come from way deep down and suddenly we’re screeching to a halt on the side of the road. I notice that it’s really the side of a cliff and there are no guardrails in sight. It still doesn’t occur to me to be afraid.
I peer through the side window over the cliff and think I see rocks and dirt falling. If I were to open my door I’d step right into a big space of nothing. Oliver is making another phone call but this one is more difficult for me to understand. He may be talking faster or just using more slang phrases. He ends the call.
“Sorry,” he says, “I just needed to call ahead and make sure no one was coming down the road toward us.”
“The road isn’t wide enough for two cars so I called to the rangers up ahead to see if anyone was on their way down the mountain. Wouldn’t want to end up careening into the abyss.”
“No,” I say, “but what if someone doesn’t know to call?”
“Oh anyone who would be driving on this road knows.”
I don’t say anything else. I’m pretty sure his plan is flawed. But, what the hell. We take off with a skid leaving gravel and dirt sputtering in our wake.
My motion sickness medicine has kicked in and I spend the rest of the ride watching the sun try and fight its way through the clouds and trees. Every once in a while, I am blinded by its rays and I find myself smiling.
“Where were you before Macedonia?” Oliver asks.
“Croatia, Montenegro, Albania,” I rattle off.
“Is Albania part of the European Union yet?” asks Oliver. “I know they want to be. Financially it would be a really positive thing for them. We want to be a part of the EU here too. Macedonia has applied for membership but it keeps getting blocked by Greece.”
“Well the official name of Macedonia is the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. We don’t want to be associated with the former Yugoslavia Republic anyway. We want to be just known as Macedonia. Greece doesn’t want us to be called Macedonia. They think only their province of Macedonia should be called Macedonia. It’s ridiculous really.”
I’m not sure if province is the correct term as I don’t know much about Greece but Oliver is upset and animated and very sure. His voice has an edge to it now and I see that the guide persona has been officially cracked. I am now getting the native Macedonian who isn’t at all careful about what comes tumbling out of his mouth.
“That does sound rather absurd,” I say. “A lot of angst about the simple thing of naming something.”
“Yeah, It’s frustrating. Macedonia is often overlooked because it’s so small. We seem to be at a stalemate. Government officials meet and meet but no solution is found.”
“How long do you think it’ll go on?”
“Hard to say. It could be pretty close to forever. People are stubborn and don’t like change.”
Ain’t that the truth, I think to myself.
About halfway up the mountain, we’re heading down a short muddy incline toward something that is reminiscent of a stream. Oliver guns the engine and looks over at me with a grin. “Sometimes when it’s really wet, the jeep gets stuck here.” We don’t get stuck and the jeep powers up the opposite side of the riverbank.
There are a dozen or so stone houses with clay roofs up ahead. They all have neat rows of windows and two chimneys. We drive up to one that has a couple of large dogs lounging beside it and Oliver calls out for Jebda. A man emerges from the house dressed in four different types of camouflage with binoculars hanging around his neck and a rifle and backpack slung over his shoulder. He’s tall and burly and walks and talks with a measured steadiness. I can see why he would be a good hunter. Calm and patience radiate from him. He doesn’t really smile but it doesn’t matter. I smile enough for both of us.
We get back in the jeep and Jebda drives us to the trailhead. I again think about the fact that I’m off in the mountains in Macedonia with two men I’ve only just met and I try to remember if I posted anything online that morning that would lead someone to me if I were to never return. I’m not frightened as I think these things. It’s almost as if someone else is thinking them.
After 10 minutes we pull over and clamor from the jeep. We set off up the mountain. Jebda is in front, then me, then Oliver. The trail is steep and rocky. I watch Jebda’s feet and step exactly where he steps. Oliver and Jebda talk a little on the way. I find it strangely comforting to be in the middle of their words and feel safe and exhilarated at the same time. The mountain is quiet, vast and strong. Every once in a while Jebda stops and motions me forward to look at the view.
The peaks of the mountain disappear into a cloudy haze. It looks as if you could climb the mountain to the clouds and I wish we had the time to try. I know, though, that it’s much further than it looks. Clouds always are. Jebda hands me the binoculars at one point so I can watch a herd of mountain goats make their way down a cliff, sideways down an incline that seems to be at a 90-degree angle from the ground.
They never slip or falter and even from where I am I know they don’t have any fear. I realize that here, on this mountain, there doesn’t seem to be much fear. I think it was Jebda who banished it. There is something primal and simple about the man. It’s not simple in an unintelligent way, but simple in a way of existing with the mountain and other creatures, in the way his feet always know where to step just like the goats; in the way he can sense without turning around if we are lagging behind and need a break.
We’ve been hiking for a couple hours and the ground is slippery with snow. Oliver falls behind me and we come to a stop in the turn of a switchback. Jebda shakes his head and points to Oliver’s boots. They exchange a few sentences. The only word I know is the one for snow, which for some reason strikes me as funny and I laugh to myself.
“So,” Oliver says, “Jebda thinks we shouldn’t go too much further because I don’t have the proper footwear. You do though. He says your boots are good.”
This fills me with great pride. We trudge forward and up for about another 20 minutes. We’ve reached a plateau with a tiny wood primitive hunting shack.
“In the summer,” Oliver says, “the hunters will sometimes spend the night in this shack.” It has two sets of bunk beds, a tiny wood stove in the corner, and an old leaning cabinet that appears to have a few chipped plates and cups, a kettle and some pieces of soap. We set our packs down to rest and Oliver says that Jebda will carry them all on the way down since it’ll be a bit treacherous.
Jebda has gone around to the back of the shack and calls for us to join him. We make our way through the snow and are met with another view of the mountain. There is one small ray of sun making it through the mist and Jebda is standing in it. His eyes are focused far across the ravine to something I can’t see. There is love and calm and something I can’t name in his eyes and, again, I am struck by the simplicity of it.
The three of us stand in silence, watching the trees wave in the wind and the clouds swirl around the craggy peaks of the mountains. The quiet is soft and true and I think about my feet rooted to the snowy, rocky ground beneath me as if I have sprung from the earth. Then I realize that I have, that we all have. We come from the earth and the stars. Standing here on the mountain in the sky is the closest we get back to that beginning while still living. I want to stand there forever.
Oliver is the one who breaks the spell. “We should be going,” he says, “my feet are freezing.” Jebda and I both slowly step away from where we have been standing.
Coming down is easier than going up and none of us fall. I am still under the spell of the mountain and don’t say anything. We pile back into the jeep and Jebda hands out sandwiches. We eat in comfortable silence and drive back to the lodges. We climb out and Oliver turns to me smiling, “I hope you enjoyed the hike. You know, you are our first American tourist.”
“What? Really?” I reply.
“Yes,” he says. “If you had given me more warning that you were coming, Jebda might have carved you a plaque.”
I look from one to the other. Jebda looks sheepish and Oliver just looks happy, giddy even. I realize that this is a big deal for them and that Oliver is at least partially serious about the plaque thing. I can’t stop smiling and I think what a perfectly wonderful problem that is: to be unable to stop smiling. I suspect they know that my smile is a huge thanks.
“We should get going,” Oliver says. I ask Jebda for a photo and he agrees. Oliver takes it. I turn to thank Jebda. He suddenly gruffly hugs me and smiles.
“Come back soon,” he says in English.
Oliver lets out a loud laugh and slaps him on the back. “Jebda never speaks English,” he says to me. “He must really like you.”
I hug the mountain man one more time. Oliver and I get into the jeep. Jebda watches us go, waving. I look out the back window until he disappears from view. Oliver and I are both quiet for the hour drive back to Skopje. I’m trying to hold onto the feeling of being connected and grounded with the earth for as long as I can. Oliver pulls into the bus station and turns to me.
“Thanks so much for coming,” he says.
“Thank you for taking me.”
“Thank you for being such a good guest.”
“Thank you for picking me up and dropping me off at the bus station.”
We thank each other for about 10 more minutes before I start to open the door.
“You can come back any time,” he says, “and, don’t worry, the mountain is part of you now, it will always be. It always was.”
I nod and slide from the seat to the concrete. My feet land with a soft plunk onto the ground and I realize he’s right. We did not come into this world. We came from it.
Vanessa is a solo traveler, cyclist, runner, and writer based in New York City. In her spare time she works as a tailor and pattern maker for television shows and movies. She is the granddaughter of a dairy farmer who was the son of a dairy farmer who was the son of a dairy farmer, an Amish woman, a woodworker from Ribnica, Slovenia, and a farm girl from Medvode, Slovenia. Like Anne Frank, she continues that most people are good at heart. She loves all the mountains. And she knows how to milk a cow. You can follow her adventures on her Instagram here.