First American Tourist in Macedonia’s Mountains
I met Oliver an hour ago. He steers the jeep up a narrow winding road with one hand while flipping through his phone with the other. Even though it seems it’d be hard to maintain control 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 Reserve in Macedonia. Oliver pulls over to make a call. We’re on the side of a cliff with no guardrails. If I were to open my door I’d step into a big space of nothing.
He looks like the kind of man your mother would tell you not to go into the woods with, the kind that people warn you about when you tell them you’re traveling in Eastern Europe by yourself.
“Sorry,” he says, “I had to make sure no one was coming down the road.”
“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.”
“What!” 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. We take off with a skid, leaving gravel and dirt sputtering in our wake.
As he drives, Oliver rambles on about how Macedonia wants to become a member of the European Union  but keeps getting blocked by Greece because of its name. Macedonia is officially the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia or FYROM. They don’t want any association with the former Yugoslavia Republic of anything and just want to be called Macedonia. Greece says it needs to pick another name because only the Greece province of Macedonia can be called Macedonia.
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 and chucked out the window along with the peel from the banana he just ate. I am now seeing the native Macedonian who isn’t at all careful about what comes tumbling out of his mouth.
I am struck by the absurdity of the whole name thing, so much future hanging in the balance because of an argument over what to call something. So human it is, and a whole cesspool of frustrations.
He segues into a conversation about Obama and America and the Middle East. I think how stimulating it is to talk about these things with someone who is not like me, who doesn’t come from where I come from.
When we reach the mountains, we stop next to a stone house. A man emerges dressed in camouflage, binoculars around his neck, a rifle and backpack slung over his shoulder. He looks like the kind of man your mother would tell you not to go into the woods with, the kind that people warn you about when you tell them you’re traveling in Eastern Europe by yourself. His name is Jebda.
We start up the steep and rocky trail; Jebda in front, Oliver behind me. I step exactly where Jebda steps. He motions me forward to look at the view. Through the binoculars, I watch a herd of mountain goats make their way down a cliff. They appear to be perpendicular to the ground, as if they have sprouted from it. They never slip or falter and even from where I am, I know they aren’t afraid. I realize that here, on this mountain, there doesn’t seem to be much fear and I wonder if it was Jebda who banished it.
His voice has an edge to it now and I see that the guide persona has been officially cracked and chucked out the window along with the peel from the banana he just ate.
There is something old and primal and simple about the man; not simple in a ‘dumb’ way, but simple in the way that he exists 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 of hours and the ground is becoming snowy and slippery. 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.” I smile and am filled with pride at my successful footwear choice.
We reach a plateau with a primitive shack. “Hunters sometimes spend the night here,” Oliver says. The shack has two bunk beds, a wood stove, and a leaning cabinet that houses chipped china, a kettle, and soap. We follow Jebda behind it. A small ray of sun makes it through the mist, landing on Jebda. His eyes focus far across the ravine. There is love and calm and something I can’t name in them. The three of us stand in silence, watching the trees wave in the wind, the clouds swirl around the craggy peaks. My feet are rooted to the rocky ground beneath me as if I have sprung from the earth. I want to stand there forever.
“We should go,” Oliver says.
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 as we pile back into the jeep and open up the sandwiches that Jebda magically produces from the back. We drive back to the lodges in a comfortable silence.
Once there, we all disembark and Oliver turns to me smiling, “I hope you enjoyed the hike. You know, you are our first American tourist.”
“Yes.” he says. “If you had given me more warning, Jebda might have carved you a plaque.”
I look at the two men. I realize this is a big deal for them and Oliver is partially serious about the plaque thing.
I realize that here, on this mountain, there doesn’t seem to be much fear and I wonder if it was Jebda who banished it.
“Come back soon,” Jebda says in English. Oliver slaps him on the back.
“Jebda never uses English,” he says to me, “He must like you.” I grin. He is not at all like the men my mother warned me about. Jebda waves as we go. I look out the back window of the jeep until he disappears.
 more recent information that has developed since my trip about this can be found here http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/crisis-in-macedonia-and-the-trans-hellenic-route-to-the-eu_2859.html
Photo credit: Marjan Lazarevski