Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Schtip, Macedonia to Xirolimni, Greece: Hospitality, New Friends, Lost in the Mountains

Miki and I walked to his home where I had a lovely stay. I finally figured out what all those things are on top of the roofs – solar water heaters! So I took a solar shower (sorry, no picture – but they are in Greece, too, so I'm sure I'll get one eventually).

Miki's mom is a French Professor at the local university, so she came into the kitchen very Julia Childs-like and introduced herself in French. It was interesting to spend the night talking to Miki (who doesn't speak French) in English, and his mom (who doesn't speak English) in French. Of course, they spoke Macedonian to each other and to Miki's dad. To, erm, help get our eyes shut, we had Rakija, which is hard liquor made from grapes.

The next morning, after a breakfast of burek (cheese pastry) with drinking yogurt and coffee, Miki saw me off for the first 20k. It was nice to have someone to ride with, and we got to know each other a little more than we had the night before.

The rest of the day was hot and dry, but thanks to some good roads, went by quickly. Happenings included:
- Stopping on a side road to take lunch and get some shade

- Stopping at a gas station to get some shade and some water, where some very nice guys who went there just to get out of the city got to know me a bit (only one spoke English, he translated for the rest), and ended up buying me some coffee. Thanks!
- Stopping at a grocery store to stock up for a climb, and having a very nice gentleman stop to give me some route advice
- A climb.
3700m of windy road seemed oddly specific...

- A descent.

I stopped to take a photo of the descent and these guys wanted me to take their photo, too.

- Needing to kill some time... and having too much currency with a border crossing the next day... so getting dinner at a hotel restaurant. And still having too much currency.

- Sleeping by a lake.

The next day I woke up, packed my tent, and headed towards Greece. I thought I had 200 Denar (about $4) to kill, so I stopped at a convenience store and stocked up on Snickers and cookies... and discovered I actually had 400 Denar to kill. I took breakfast by the lake, then continued on to the border, passing a grocery store, wondering... should I try and spend my money there? Or should I try and exchange it in Greece?

I went by.

Then, I went back.

And I saw a crazy-looking bus with a bike inside. After getting some bread and a coffee, I noticed someone come out of the bus... someone who looked suspiciously like a touring cyclist. I went over and introduced myself.

Toby, from England, and Dries, from Bulgaria, were on separate tours but had been riding together for some time. We ended up having coffee together, and then they ended up offering to cook some extra breakfast for me. I had originally intended to be in Greece by 9 AM that day, but... new friends! So after breakfast, and talking about bikes, and traveling, and... and... scheming about how to get our mascot, Marco, across the border with us, Toby got a flat tire.

You can see Marco innocently chewing on something next to Dries.

The flat tire culprit.

So, we didn't get going until 11. But it was totally worth it. Because... new friends!
“Do they have a toilet here?”
“Yea, round the back.”
“Squat or sit?”
“I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.”
We crossed the border together – without Marco, sadly – and continued on to Greece. To find gyros.

Clearly, the right place for touring cyclists to buy gyros.

It smelled AMAZING. Like fresh vegetables and tzatziki.

Also the border guard asked me who I voted for. *ahem* After gyros, sadly, I had to depart. It had been a good few hours, shooting the shit, teasing each other, making bicycle jokes, trying to find gyros without speaking any Greek (“It's three blocks down.” “Just one block further.” “Just 100 meters more.” “Right next door!” – all this by miming, except for an English-speaking couple hired by Toby, who then passed Dries and I as we said, “Aristholos” – thank you. They were baffled to have seen one touring cyclist, let alone another, let alone another...). I hoped we would meet again – Dries would spend the winter in Turkey before doing the Pamir highway next spring, at the same time as me, and Toby considered maybe-possibly-probably-not joining Jacob and I in Africa.

I continued over a mostly flat, but not as flat as Kansas part of Greece, and wondered about the soldiers that might have marched there thousands of years ago, and all the history behind the country and things that had happened there that I would never know about. As I passed through a small town I got whistled at, turned around to say “hi,” and was invited for coffee. Only two of a group of ten or so spoke English, so there was a lot of translating going on. It was great to sit and relax a bit, and learn a bit more about Greek culture... like don't call Macedonia that, it's Skopje, and that a lot of Greeks want to go to the US so they can have full time jobs, since after the Greek economic crisis full time jobs are hard to come by. The coffee was covered.

The "Sure, I'll take your photo," Takes a Selfie. Classic.

Olympic rings.

I continued on and began looking for a place to camp, and even went so far as to ask around, getting tipped off about free camping at a nearby river. On a hill outside of town I came to think I wouldn't make it before dark, so I stopped to ask a family dining outside if they knew a place I could put my tent.

“Sure,” they said, “right here!” pointing to the ground between their fence and the street.

“Erm... maybe not so close to the road?”

So, I was directed around the side of the house. Then – “wait, wait” – I was invited in the fence, into the backyard. And shown the shower. And then, because it would be cold at night, invited into the basement. Before the end of the night, a pull-out would appear. That's how I went from sleeping next to a river, to sleeping in a yard, to a basement, to a bed.

The best part, of course, was not the bed (though that was quite nice), it was getting to know complete strangers as if we'd known each other our whole lives. Kostas and his wife Evi had friends over for dinner – friends they had made since their first-borns were born in the same room in the same hospital. We spoke about the economic crisis; why it's Skopje, not Macedonia; whether the world is a dangerous place; and the names of all the different Greek breads and pastries. I felt right at home.

Towards the end of the evening much time was spent convincing Kostas that I would be alright – he and his friend took a bet on whether I would get robbed or bit by a dog or kidnapped in Turkey, and he told me over and over about the refugees coming into Greece from Turkey and Syria. We told him to turn off the TV, yet still he persisted. I promised to contact him when I made it out of Turkey so they could settle their bet. It didn't feel fear-driven though, it felt like Kostas really cared about me. Anyways, I know he doesn't think all strangers are dangerous, because he invited one to sleep in his basement that night.

The next morning I was invited up from the basement to the kitchen for coffee, which became breakfast. Even their son wanted to feed me – he picked up a piece of bread with honey and butter, and held it out to me on a fork. I nommed.

“Practicing his Greek hospitality, eh?” I said to Kostas.

“You don't practice Greek hospitality,” was the reply. “You're born with it.”

Evi at one point cut some coffee cake and wrapped it in aluminum foil. “For the road,” she said, walking to the far side of the table and putting it in a previously innocuous looking plastic bag. “This, too,” she smiled.

I sat with my jaw open for a minute before going over and lifting the bag up and down a few times. It was quite heavy.

“You know I have to bike with this, right?” I said. They laughed.

As I was packing up my bike, they joined me in the garage and Evi handed me a plastic bag, “just in case.” It was folded like spanikopita.

I didn't want to leave – I felt right at home. I felt like I had a new family. I felt like I felt when I left Shaun and Dani's. It wouldn't be until later I'd remember all the coincidences that got me there – wanting to get to Greece by 9, then meeting Toby and Dries, then Toby having a flat tire, then stopping by that group of guys, then asking around town for a place to camp... somehow when I went by their house, they were out in the yard, not inside. Thanks, world, for introducing me to them.

I wish I could feel like I felt that night, forever. Fill my life with awesome people, and spend all day with them. This is the high I chase, better than drugs, better than sunlight, vegan diets, fantastic views, or $1,000,000. Just to be with people – even people you just met – and to feel loved, like you belong, like you're safe. I think that's the best gift we can give each other.

That's why I cycle tour.

So that's where the word cornucopia comes from...

The morning was fairly uneventful, except that it rained. I had a climb to do that day between Kostas' house and my Warmshowers, and I could do a 1200m climb on a highway, or a 1600m climb on a side road. Obviously, I took the side road.

Climb in the distance.

10% grade? No problem. I did 12 in the Pyrenees all the time.


And up...

Up and up I went, and people honked and waved and one guy stared so dumbfoudedly at me out his window he dropped his cigarette to wave back at me when I waved and smiled. I stopped at a small town at 1300m for food, and continued to the top just as the rain picked up along with the wind. Only at 1400m, with the only ways up or back down, did the road change to gravel. Nasty, chunky, unpacked gravel.

And up...

“Crap,” I said.

But maybe it was just like that to the top. Anyways, I couldn't go back down. So I went on.

The weather was pretty miserable, but it did stop raining at some point. I also reached what I thought was the top, but there was no sign – there was nothing but trees and a crappy gravel road.

And this guy, who I named George.

I kept going.

I kept going until the “road” split, and then I checked my map, and realized I wasn't on the road anymore. I had gone about 5k away from it at some point, and the “road” had become grass and dirt and mud and cow manure, so not only was I in the middle of nowhere at 1600m in a mountain in Greece, but my bike and I were dirty.

I shouted a profanity.

Louisa, for all she's worth, made the best of the slip-and-slide that was the wet, muddy path over the mountain. I almost fell multiple times, almost, quite literally, eating sh*t.

I wouldn't get to the bottom of the mountain until 6:30, and I had told my host I would be there between 5 and 6. There were some kids playing in the street in the village; hoping for a phone, I asked if any of them spoke English. They didn't – they went inside and got their family. The whole family. Mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, sons, daughters – all came out on the street and began talking to me and each other in Greek. I was reminded vaguely of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I tried to mime that I needed a phone. The grandma tried to talk to me in German (most useful language for cycle touring Europe?).

After 5 hours of climbing and being lost, the other side of the mountain was a very welcome sight.

Eventually one of the sons called a friend who spoke English and the family left. Through some handing the phone back and forth and Google translating it was determined I would follow him in his car halfway to the next major city, 10k away, and from there get directions to Xirolimni, where my host was, still 20k more.

The sun had set, so I put lights on my bike, and off we went. It was, fortunately, mostly downhill. After a few turns and many long coasting sessions, we made it to an intersection where a few cars were waiting. He had invited his English-speaking friend, so we had a little hubbub at the intersection in the dark in the middle of rural Greece, and directions were given, and repeated, and repeated again, and was I sure I could make it? It was very far. They really cared about me.

That's the thing about Greece. I first noticed it in Skopje – people were just friendlier. Smiling, waving, friendly honking. In Greece, it's one step further: they smile, wave, friendly honk... invite you in, give you directions, ask if you need anything, ask again, and then worry about you for hours after you've left. You're taken care of.

I made it another 5k before stopping at a gas station to check my map again. It was now 8 PM, pitch black, raining, there was lightning on the horizon, and I still had 25k to go – 2 hours at worst. There was a pickup truck parked by the gas station.

“Do you speak English?” I asked the clerk. He did. I asked who owned the pickup. He pointed. I explained my situation – I had gotten lost in the mountain, there was a storm approaching, and I was trying to make it to Xirolimni, 2 hours away. I would be very appreciative of a ride.

“Come in,” he said.

I came in and sat down on a couch. Car parts and lubricants were in shelves on the walls. The lighting was dim, and on the other side of the room sat two men silently smoking cigarettes. I felt vaguely like I was being recruited into the mafia. I knew they just didn't want me waiting outside in the rain, but I didn't want to interrupt their smoking session.

“America?” one of the men said. I nodded.

Eventually they snuffed their cigarettes and waved me out to the pickup. We loaded the bike, I got in the very small back seat (remember, pickup), they got in front of me, and we were off.

Had I not been so tired it probably would have been a bit more creepy. The thunderstorm in the background, rain pounding on the windshield, me turning around to make sure the bike was still there, them talking in Greek, the occasional question in English...

“There?” he pointed. I had been following on my phone and yes, that was the city in the distance. He would have been willing to take me to the front door, it seemed, but I insisted on the gas station outside of town – mostly because it had a roof, and I didn't want my new friends to get wet. We unloaded the bike, shook hands, and they were off. I never got their names.

And that's how I found myself alone at a gas station in a thunderstorm outside a small village in Greece.

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