Like most travelers, all our roaming is about new experiences – places, people, and different perspectives. It’s not news that all people have the same basic needs.
But travel is a quick teacher that shows how geography and culture mingle to create an infinite variety of HOW things get done.
With the right mindset it’s fun, and frequently funny, to witness a new approach. Our recent mountain-top border crossing between Macedonia and Bulgaria was a perfect example.
Before I get to the meat of the story, I have to say what a relief it was to make an easy crossing. In the Balkans, the refugee crisis has made borders chaotic and sometimes dangerous places. Like the refugees, we were moving north so we had no idea how the crossing would go. Luckily, the queue of cars, trucks, and buses appeared normal as we all waited patiently for our inspections, stamps, and shooing across the border. Looking back, we guessed that given the mountain terrain, the isolated location, and the fact that the road was an out-of-the-way detour, the refugees chose a more direct route north. Lucky us.
And before I go on, I have one disclaimer: the photos in this post are not our own. The pistols on the hips of the border guards convinced us that it might be prudent to keep the camera in the backpack. And now to the tale.
A bus ride from Skopje, Macedonia to Sofia, Bulgaria (or as the window placard said Скопје – София) is an inexpensive, straightforward affair. Once we rolled off the dusty plains outside Skopje and into the tree-covered mountains, the ride became much more scenic. It’s only a 150-mile trip, which had me wondering why it was scheduled to take five hours. A few miles twisting and turning up the narrow mountain road quickly answered the question. Small farms were scattered up the steep-sided valley with grazing herds of sheep and goats. As we crept up, the numbers of grazers crept down, until there were only trees and scrub.
At the top of what seemed an endless hill, the road widened from two lanes to six. A queue of vehicles, a few official-looking buildings, a blazing yellow and red flag, and a red-striped barrier let us know we’d finally reached the border between Macedonia and Bulgaria.
We’ve crossed a few borders and our time-tested rule is to follow the crowd, keep our mouths shut, do as we’re told, and hope for the best. Usually it’s smooth sailing, but in this case, our butts were on a bus, so there was no crowd to follow and no helpful directions in English. So we opted for the keep our mouths shut part and just waited.
The driver (who had been constantly smoking while sitting directly beneath the no smoking sign) turned the engine off, grabbed a handful of papers and disappeared out the door. Five minutes later a hefty, pistol-totin’ officer came on board and methodically collected our passports, opening each one to the photo page and carefully nesting them in a tidy stack. He disappeared for ten minutes and then returned, and handed the passports to some bewildered woman in the first row of seats. Obviously she’d just been nominated to pass them out. To her credit, she did a much better job reading the foreign language names than I would have.
Then the driver reappeared, the barrier was raised, and we drove the length of the bus and stopped again. The driver disappeared again, another border guard stepped onboard, collected our passports using exactly the same technique, and then vanished into officialdom. Ten minutes later he’s back, and he handed the passports to the same poor lady. But this time, I noticed a bit more confidence in her distribution technique. If you haven’t learned this before now, there’s a lesson here folks: NEVER sit in the front row.
Once again, the driver re-re-appeared, fired up the bus, pulled forward one bus-length, and just when we thought we were home-free, stopped again. Off he got, and yet another grim-faced officer stepped aboard and walked the length of the bus scrutinizing each passenger. We heard the luggage compartment door open below, and bags being pushed about. Terri and I were trying to keep a straight-face but we were starting to crack. What the hell is going on!
With our stamped passports in hand, while gliding down the mountain in what was finally Bulgaria, we pieced together what had happened … we think. Apparently, Officer #1 officially checked us out of Macedonia; Officer #2 stamped us into Bulgaria; Officer #3 was Bulgarian customs. And just when you think you’ve seen it all.
We fancy ourselves experienced travelers but on every trip we still get surprised. The funniest thing about this experience was that throughout this thirty minute process, other than our sotto voce whispers to each other, we didn’t hear another word spoken on the bus. I guess we weren’t the only confused border crossers.
James & Terri
P.S. We made this border crossing a few weeks ago, before the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. With links to Syria and the possibility that some of the terrorists made their way through Europe as refugees, it’s highly likely that border crossings in the Balkans will get even more difficult in the future. Sadly, this will only make a bad situation even worse.