Friday, June 06, 2014

Into Macedonia

Another border crossing, Bulgaria to Macedonia, with certain uncertainty. Our plan is to bus from Melnik, via Sandanski, to Petrich, 20 kms from the Macedonian border. There may be an onward bus from Petrich to Strumica, Macedonia, or not. That's uncertain for sure. And if there is no bus we will take a taxi to the border. And then most likely take another taxi the 30 kms to Strumica. Once in Strumica we will decide whether to stay one night or press on to Bitola. Sun-Ling has identified suitable hotels in both towns. Uncharacteristically for us, we have some excess Bulgarian leva that we need to change into euros or Macedonian denari - an additional uncertainty.

The day starts off with some anxiety as the 9:00 bus from Melnik to Sandanski is 30 minutes late after our hotel tells us it's usually 15 minutes early. But no worries for us as we arrive in Sandanski at 10:00 with plenty of time to shop at the local market and buy lunch materials at Billa before getting on the 11:15 bus to Petrich.

We arrive in Petrich around noon. There is no bus to Strumica we are told. But the kind dispatcher offers to call a taxi for us; 18 leva is the fare to the border.

We eat our lunch. We debate if we should try to change our money in Petrich or at the border. The dispatcher seems to think we can change our money anywhere we like. Hmmmm. Not our experience in the past. We decide to try our luck at the border.

The taxi is called. Sometimes border town taxi drivers are less than honest but this guy uses his meter and the fare is 17.50 leva. Our spirits dip a bit as the Bulgarian side of the border is a sunny dusty wasteland. We wander around a bit. Usually we shrink from the sight of the ambulatory border money changer; today we seek him out. A sign on a dirty glass window says "Change Money" but no one has changed money here for months by the look.

After a few moments we are noticed by the driver of an unmarked taxi.

Where you go? Petrich? Strumica?

We want to change money.

But unfortunately he is not a money changer, and has no idea how to change money, he's just an opportunistic driver of an semi-legal taxi hoping to win the lottery by overcharging tourists for the trip to Strumica.

20 Euros to Strumica. It's 40 kilometers.

It's 30 kilometers says Sun-Ling pointing to a sign that says "Stumica 30".

OK, 15 euros.

No. We want to change money.

He finally gets it and offers us an absurd rate to change half of our leva into denari. We decline. He shouts around the corner and out comes a young guy who has some English. At the same time, an older guy comes out of a closed up shop and pulls out an enormous wad of bills: euros, leva, denari, and who knows what else. He's not a money changer by trade but he has all the tools and 30 seconds later with the help of the younger guy we have exchanged almost all of our leva for euros. Handshakes all round and we head over to the Bulgarian border control buildings for exit proceedings.

At this point I should mention that there are two additional potential problems with this border crossing. One, foreigners must register with the police upon entering Bulgaria and carry the registration paper with them during their stay, turning in the registration when leaving the country. We have such registration papers filled in by our hotel in Varna. We hope there is no problem. Two, we read online that Macedonian border officials sometimes ask for proof of medical insurance. We have our Blue Cross NC ID card ready.

Two buildings and several vehicle lanes make up Bulgarian border control  but only one window is operating. We breeze through with just a glance at our Foreigner Registration Cards. A car pulls up headed to Bulgaria from Macedonia. We still have 5 leva, some euros, but no Macedonian denari, and the very kind young woman with a baby in the backseat changes our 5 leva into 150 denari. We have a short chat while her father is dealing with the border crossing. She says we will like Strumica. Ciao!

It's short walk to the Macedonia side. A huge red and yellow sunburst Macedonian flag is flying overhead. They have many lanes and many signs but only one window is operating. The border official quickly scans and stamps our passports. We are in!

Are there buses to Strumica? We ask him.

No buses but you can call a taxi.

To shorten the story: we have no mobile phone so several minutes later the border guy is about to call a taxi for us - nice guy - when a taxi pulls up and drops off a truck driver. We hop in and for 10 euros he takes us 30 kms to the Strumica bus station. [Many horse carts are seen on the way.]

At first glance the Strumica bus station looks chaotic but in fact it's just busy. We've gained an hour as Macedonia is GMT+1 and I set my watch back to 12:30. There are 7 more hours of daylight so we decide to push on to Bitola via the 13:00 bus to Prilep.

Folks at the Strumica station are friendly. And soon we find that it's the rule. The driver of the 13:00 bus changes money with us, euros to denari, so we can buy tickets at the ticket office. When the price of the ticket doesn't seem to match what the driver told us, a young woman translates for us. She lived in the US for 12 years, now lives in France, and is back in Macedonia visiting her family. She will take the bus from Strumica to Shtip.

And bus drivers use the AC in Macedonia. Nice! Buses here are not the infernos I've grown to dread in Bulgaria and Romania.

The bus pulls in to Prilep in time for us to catch the 16:00 bus to Bitola. While waiting we meet Chris, a Peace Corps Volunteer from the US based in Prilep, who is headed to Bitola for the weekend. We chat in the station and on the bus. During the next two days we run into him several times on the Bitola main drag. Macedonia is lucky to have him and the other Peace Corps volunteers. They are smart, dedicated, and personable.

By 5PM we are settled in Hotel Tokin House, just a few seconds off the main pedestrian street. The stats for the day: 4 buses, 2 taxis, 2 short walks, 2 new friends, many acts of kindness by strangers, and about 250 kilometers traveled.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Congratulations! I feel tired just reading about it.

Hope you're going to Ohrid.