Skopje was my third city in as many days, and Macedonia my sixth country in ten days. I was on a ridiculous pace, wearing myself down a little more everyday, and rarely spending two nights in any one location. A lack of planning did make for some amazing experiences but also set me up for avoidable situations and stresses that I didn’t need. It was all adding up quickly. My plan was to spend the night in Skopje with a man named Zoran I had found through Couchsurfing.com. It had worked wonderfully in Priština the night before, where I stayed with an expat from Atlanta, Georgia. However I was having no luck finding free Wifi or any business interested in sharing it. I did not have Zoran’s number, and had no other way to reach him. I was moving around too quickly to ever touch base with him during the day, choosing to spend my time sightseeing rather than sitting and waiting with internet connection in the hopes that I could reach him.
New cities don’t take pity on the inexperienced or orphaned traveler, as I had learned a few days prior in Tirana, Albania. In Tirana I looked like little more than a ripe fruit ready to be picked and eaten. Every forward individual in Albania had recognized my vulnerability. One of the poorest countries in Europe, where people were used to seizing whatever small opportunity came their way, especially an absent minded or inexperienced traveler. I had been constantly pried and approached, everyone wondering what I needed, or what service they could provide in exchange for cash that they were convinced I was carrying in great amounts. And now here in Skopje I thought I was falling into the same situation. Time was running out to reach Zoran and I didn’t know what else to do for the night. And the sun was fading. It wasn’t even six in the evening and the sun was threatening to drop behind the mountains. I knew that early October in the Balkans meant that several minutes of daylight were disappearing every day. I reminded myself again that I really had learned a lot in the handful of days since Albania. I didn’t have anywhere to go, but walked quickly, with purpose, developing the habit of walking and deciding along the way where I was going. It was best to look occupied and aware. I did not want to stay in Skopje longer than I had to, and so decided my destination was the bus station. See what my options are. Maybe Greece, maybe Bulgaria.
The signs for the bus station led me along wide boulevards, past train tracks, and eventually underneath a huge freeway cutting across the city just outside of downtown. Supported 30ft above the ground, the freeway rattled and hummed while buildings and more traffic lay below. The bus station was one of these buildings, tucked under the expressway and built into its supports. It had the same hustle and intensity of the Bazaar I visited in Kosovo a few days before, drivers calling out locations for hotels and hostels, trying to sell the charms of their business’ road side edifice over that of the man next to him. An army of taxis and hustlers waited outside the bus station, ready to take advantage of anyone that hesitated or looked unsure of their next destination. I tried my best not to be a target.
No amount of haste in my body language was going to prove that I wasn’t easy to spot. Kids with big backpacks are a hustler’s dream. Drivers and hotel reps pounced and suffocated, sensing my needs. I focused in on one man, thinking that giving him my undivided attention would look like I was locked in for his hostel and that there was no use for the others to hassle me. I was surprised it worked. I haggled with him for a few minutes, and upon realizing he was not going to drop below a 30 euro combo of taxi and hostel stay I decided I was no longer interested and refused to continue. There was no better plan, but I did not want to pay. Money was always in short supply and 30 euros for one night was outside of my budget range. The sun was now gone, and I had no place to stay.
I walked into the bus station to look at departure times for different cities. Rows of airport seating lay in the center of the building. I sat down, exhausted, and shut my mind off. Times and destinations scrolled across the screen in bright red; first in Cyrillic, and then in the Roman alphabet. Belgrade, Sofia, Tirana, Athens, Istanbul, Thessalonika. I sat there for probably half an hour as hardly a thought passed through my head, and not one muscle moved. I didn’t feel like reading any of my books or updating my journal, but rather decided to continue staring at the board. At first mindlessly, and then to teach myself Cyrillic as the destinations continued to scroll by. Anything to distract myself from having no idea what I was doing. People slowly dwindled out of the station. The last buses for the night departed, and those having bought their tickets for the next day left. Nine and ten PM came and went, I’d since pulled out my journal to scribble down the characters of Cyrillic, and was proud that I could watch new destinations show up on the screen and figure out where buses were going before they showed up in the Roman alphabet. At ten thirty the last of us, me and maybe four others, were kicked out of the station as it closed for the night. I decided to hastily buy a ticket to Thessalonika at my last opportunity. The city fit what little criteria I had; I decided I wanted to head south into Greece, and I wanted the first available bus in the morning. The latter was more to give myself something immediate to look forward to so I didn’t get lost in another weird night.
I walked out of the station and was hit with a blast of cold air. The temperature had dropped significantly from when I’d walked in maybe five hours earlier. I didn’t want to wander far- I had a 6am bus ticket, and as long as I stayed under the freeway I had a better chance of staying warm than anywhere else I’d seen yet. A set of three benches to the right of the doorway looked my best chance of comfort for the night. Several other strangers and wanderers were calling it home for the night. I sat down on the far side of all the benches, next to a man and woman both clearly homeless. I put on my jacket and padlocked two of my backpack pockets while also tying everything to my legs. In the small chance I did manage some sleep, anyone who thought of pilfering me would have a very hard time of doing so, and would certainly wake me up in the act. I took my watch off and hooked it through my jacket collar ensuring that my buzzing morning alarm wouldn’t be more than six inches away from my ear. I knew sleep would be nearly impossible, but if it did come, I had to be prepared.
I bundled up for a cold Balkan night while the man next to me sat in dirty jeans and a tattered t-shirt faded from overuse. He had a disarming smile that exposed all the wrinkles on his face, stretching across his cheeks and deep onto his forehead. He looked to be in his mid-fifties. I stared straight forward, trying to relax and close my eyes, but I could feel his presence as he continued to look at me. After a minute he spoke up with a simple ‘hi’. I smiled at him and returned the hello. He was hunched forward with his elbows on his knees, relaxed, and for all I could tell not cold in the slightest. I was in several more layers and fighting off a shiver. I asked him what his name was. If I wasn’t going to sleep, I might as well practice some Croatian.
‘Miki’ he responded, “This is my sister, Jasna,” he continued, gesturing to the woman on his left. Her face registered nothing at all as she stared blankly forward. For Miki’s weathered and warm appearance, Jasna looked broken and empty. She was sickly thin, her blank eyes sunken into her skull, skin clinging to bone. Her blue dress was little more than a stained rag tattered on the ends like an old flag that needed replacing. One arm was in a makeshift cast and in her free hand she held a rolled drug. It was pungent, whatever it was, and her thoughtless face was spaced out under the influence as Miki and I talked. I asked Miki where he was from.
“Bosnia”, he replied, “East of Sarajevo.”
It was a scattered conversation; Miki speaking just enough English, and I, just enough Croatian.
“She’s my family” he said, “Now all of my family”.
I knew exactly what he meant, but I asked him to explain anyways.
Being a Bosnian vagrant almost always implied a grizzly past. Jasna was all the family he had left, but I never would’ve expected the depth of tragedy he told me. They were Bosniaks; Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Minorities in a region dominated by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox factions. He was from a large family in the eastern part of the country, with relatives in several nearby villages, not far from the Serbian border. His family’s history and happiness disappeared with the fall and dissolution of Yugoslavia. Serbia looked to maintain its dwindling influence, and when countries declared independence from the crumbling Communist state, war broke out. His village was one of the first to be attacked by the invading Serbian armies. Families were slaughtered and destroyed. His family didn’t escape this fate; most of them killed and scattered. Some of the parts I couldn’t fully understand, my Croatian wasn’t as good as I wished it was. He spoke candidly about the death of his parents, and one of his siblings, how they had been at home when the soldiers had arrived. I didn’t understand where he had said he’d been, only that he was with Jasna when the attacks occurred. He told me he didn’t know where the rest of his family was, or if they were even still alive. He had no way to reach them anymore, as those who survived had to flee as well. In the first few months of war, he said, Serbian soldiers would try to get away with killing as many Bosniaks as they could, before Bosnian resistance was well organized or the international community aware of the depth of the conflict and the nature of the atrocities. He and his sister had escaped narrowly. They ran, first west to Sarajevo, then south. Miki and Jasna had been refugees since the early 1990’s and had lost all opportunity and hope of a normal life, much less a settled one. They now stayed in Skopje because the boss at the bus station let Miki and his sister stay there as long as he was willing to sweep the floors every day and night. He was paid in loose change, and Miki said he made enough for him and his sister to hang on day to day. I asked him how old he was when the armies attacked, and he said he had finished school only a year before, and wasn’t even twenty then. I realized he hadn’t even hit forty years yet.
“As long as I have Jasna, I am happy” he finished, showing me his warm, weathered smile again. I looked over at her. She still sat motionless, expressionless, seemingly brain dead. Nothing Miki had said registered the slightest change in her demeanor. She took a puff of whatever she was smoking and I wondered how much of Jasna really was still there.
I woke up at 5:40am to the cruel beeps of my alarm. The air had grown colder still and I didn’t know at what point I had managed to fall asleep. My body ached from the cold and crooked bench as I stood up to release my bag from my ankles before stretching. The night was still the deepest shade of black. I walked into the bus station just as it opened, checked that my bus was waiting and on time, and then walked towards the terminals. As I left, I waved goodbye to Miki as he swept away the morning dust.