An ominous roar of wind in the treetops and I feel a corresponding gentle brush of air on my forehead. I nuzzle deeper into my sleeping bag but eerie dreams are haunting me in the darkness. I feel the warmth, the comfort of my sleeping bag but also the cold air beyond it and I am confronted with a visceral understanding of how fragile my comfort is and wonder how I would fare without it and it to what depths of discomfort my mind could bear without completely losing it and then for some reason, I do not know why, the detainees at Guantanamo Bay pop into my head. Here I am sleeping in the middle of a forest in Macedonia and suddenly my mind is filled with thoughts of these people half way around the world and I am overcome with guilt because it’s been so long since I really thought about them as if my neglect had a tangible effect on their hearts and minds. ‘Good God’ I think, are those people still down there?
Coming from Albania, Macedonia seems generally very similar save mountainous geography and slightly more developed towns. It’s hard to take a picture in Macedonia without a horizon of snow-capped peaks in the background, but despite its elevation it was great riding in March with 70 degree weather and sun the whole four days it took us to cycle across the country. The deeper we venture into this part of the Balkans the more we learn that the Albanian people stretch far beyond the borders of Albania and are at the center of much of the political unrest that continues to take place in this region.
An Albanian and Macedonian Flag Flying together in the headwind.
After flying down the pass from Albania we spent our first night on a well grazed piece of land wary that we are entering the fringe of the most heavily land mined area in the world; the one thing that is kind of a downer for our preferred accommodation choice: wild camping.
The next morning we ride into the small town of Struga. While Rasham relaxes in the sun with some coffee I dip into a bank and find out the exchange rate, then withdraw some local money from the ATM.
Macedonian money is colorful. 50 Leks is about one US dollar and will easily buy you a cup of coffee, a hamburger or half a pizza.
Macedonia has a lot of mosques and churches in equal number, often times not too far from each other.
Then we are making our way to the next pass up an increasingly narrow and steep valley.
Macedonian Architecture does a lot with a generally box-shaped home.
Tomorrow is Rasham’s birthday and we take advantage of a hotel offered by Mom for the occasion. The hotel is an old and musky soviet style cube of a building. Inside however, the room is equipped with a high-tech shower unit that can shoot out streams of water from four different locations, has two arrays of colorful lights and a built-in stereo all accessible from the waterproof control panel.
Our third and final pass in Macedonia takes us up to 4000 feet where winter snow still chills the leafless forest.
On the opposite side we camp in another well trodden field and prepare Rasham’s birthday dinner: mashed potatoes with several sauces and sides. The wide variety and high quality of dairy here made for some great mash, fresh cottage cheese and milk, butter, yogurt and a big block of feta cheese, in addition to chopped spicy peppers, green onions, and fresh garlic.
In the night we are awoken by many soft footsteps and occasional grunting.
I listen intently the way I often do to these strange sounds in the night, trying to piece together a mental image of the actions that could be making them. But this one is easy, it’s a group of pigs, the little grunts they make giving them away. In the morning we find their wallow not far from our tent.
In the morning we cruise down another thousand feet to a town called Gostivar.
The terrain in flattening out now and we are making our way up to Skopje, the capital.
It’s a beautiful day of riding, not too hot, not too cold.
We sit down at a cafe and, just as they had in cafés in Spain, Portugal, Tunisia, Italy and Albania there is a TV playing American music videos. One begins featuring Britney Spears and Will I Am. The song is catchy but at the same time profoundly simple and meaningless. As I watch, Britney’s mouth is completely disconnected from the words she is supposedly singing as if it was arranged like this on purpose. Then the music changes is somewhat distorted and with a rising oscillating tone culminates in a visual and audible “Britney Bitch”. It’s hard not to be struck with how mesmerizing the video is and yet at the same time how profoundly stupid it is. Three days later remnants of the song are still playing in my head. I can’t help but think this music has an unnaturally prolonged remembrance; I heard this song only once and yet it is taking over three days to leave my psychic aura. The song seems to continuously play in the penumbral realms surrounding my thoughts and feelings.
Then we are stopped by a man in his early fifties. He spent 20 years, from 14 to 34 living in the states. “I keep telling these kids,” he says, “you guys are fifty years behind America.” I can’t help but think that the kids in the states must also be fifty years behind what America was when he was there. I think of this Britney Bitch song and I can’t help but think that this meaningless music is a clue to what is happening to the youth. Everywhere I encounter this feeling in others that the youth are missing something, perhaps that feeling has persisted for generations but then again, perhaps this phenomenon has been taking place for generations. Perhaps, for four or five generations, beginning at most 100 years ago, humans have been losing touch with themselves.
And here is this stupid song that, with all other songs like it, and all other images of glamour and sex appeal like it, are creating this psychic net within which the youth live. And every time another ever brighter and cheaper and larger TV set is installed in Macedonia or the US or Tunisia or any of now even the most remote locations on the globe, this psychic net is growing ever tighter and ever stronger. My first instinct is to blame it on a global corporate intention aiming at creating disconnection with their media divisions which leaves one more vulnerable to advertising; But I think that something more profound is happening. I think we are all becoming isolated and it’s not really anyone’s fault but our own. All these screens and gadgets combined with an ever-increasing urbanized people are creating an isolated population, not physically but mentally and our music is a reflection of our condition.
An old man in a tiny red car stops to sell us some eggs.
For lunch we stop in a small village and get two sandwiches for a euro each. I try to fix a severally untrue wheel for a local to little avail.
That evening we camp on top of a hill 15 kilometers south of the Kosovo border.
Near the top we see a man lying on his side smoking a pipe and watching a herd of some kind of antelope. He sees us and waves. I go shake his hand and indicate we want to sleep there. He doesn’t seem to mind.
We wake up and ride a few kilometers to greet the border of Kosovo before noon!