It's been a few months since the hubs and I galavanted across the Balkans in a rental car (I'm clearly the worst with blogging about it. Shame on me), but the memories of our time in Macedonia are as strong as ever. For instance, last night I dreamt that I was clinging to a mountain peak, Adventures in Babysitting style, and this morning I thought to myself, "Oh yeah, I never blogged about almost dying in Macedonia". Well, buckle up your Thor helmet because no one leaves here without singing the blues. Or reading about it. You get the picture.
A bit of context: Our rental car broke down at the beginning of our trip, so Enterprise gave us a replacement: a small Renault SUV. I didn't realize then that that petite French baguette with standard tires and a manual transmission was really a jacked guardian angel in disguise.
Another bit of context: Macedonia isn't included in the EU's data plan roaming rule, so we didn't have cellular data in this country. When we were on WiFi, I pulled up Google Maps and followed the directions offline; you can still see your location change, we just had to pay strict attention to which directions to take.
Okay, so why were we in Macedonia (official name: Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia)? Besides the fact that it fit perfectly on our planned route, it was also the home of the one the only: Colin Farrell. You know, Alexander the Great.
EXACTLY. I could write an entire post as to what a complete turd of a film Alexander was, and how Colin Farrell was a laughable casting decision. Long story short: We wanted to see some cool Alexander the Great shit.
We had two stops planned for Macedonia: Lake Ohrid and the capital, Skopje. We were coming from Butrint, Albania, and we needed a place to stop between there and Skopje. Lake Ohrid is one of the top Macedonian destinations, and stopping there cut down that day's drive from nine hours to six and a half. Win-win. Or so we thought.
The drive from Albania was smooth and definitely beautiful along the Adriatic coast and through the Greek mountains. We were making good time, and getting through Macedonian border control was a piece of cake. The Macedonian landscape is pretty breathtaking: lush green mountains and vineyards in their valleys. Most of Macedonia is covered in these mountains, and there are several national parks throughout the country.
Our first hour in Macedonia was on the two-lane highway, where our greatest problem was getting stuck behind trucks on curvy mountain roads. Although the highway continued, Google Maps had us exit into a neighborhood. We drove past a few village houses and soon entered Pelister National Park on Baba Mountain. Even though we weren't exactly sure why the blue dot led us this direction, we shrugged and followed the paved road. We were soon deep into the forest and wound our way up Baba Mountain as we went. Eventually, we got to a fork in the road; to the left was the paved road we'd been following, and to the right was a dirt path that led further into the woods. The car in front of us went left, so we followed them. The road narrowed, and I saw that our blue dot got further away from the route Google Maps wanted us to take*. Elliot somehow managed a 3-point turn on a one-lane mountain road, backing into the shrubs because the road wasn't wide enough to accommodate a turn-around without pulling a Thelma and Louise. It was about that moment when I went into nervous mode and started picking at my fingernails. El's reaction was to get shit done and then bitch about how we'd be charged for the scratches on the trunk.
We got back to the fork in the road and hesitantly took the path clearly less taken. Although we were more Team Philippe in this moment, Google Maps aka Maurice convinced us that this spooky looking route was the way to go. We quickly realized this was not going to be easy. Although there was a tunnel-like clearing through the trees, the ground was absolutely not meant for a car. What started off as gravel quickly switched to straight up rocks, and our little Renault was soon like a baby's rattle, shaking us left to right and up and down. Don't forget that this bad boy was a manual transmission, so not only did El have to navigate the rocks, creek water, and protruding branches, but he had to do so WHILE CONSTANTLY SWITCHING GEARS. You could have cut the tension in the car with a knife on account of El's concentration and my hysterical praying to St. Christopher to get us out of this mess. We finally got clear of the woods into what looked like an abandoned camp site. There was a fire pit, benches, and a dilapidated wooden house; our road out of there, now a mud path, had a giant mud puddle blocking our exit. We're talking several inches deep. Seriously, you couldn't have written a better horror movie: Some sadistic hillbilly figures out how to triangulate GPS signals to lure dumb Americans to their torturesexmutilation camp, offers to "help" them get out of the mud only to say, "Well, looks like it's getting dark even though it's only noon so you'll have to stay the night" and ends up wearing our faces.
While I was looking around for potential weapons, El assessed the mud puddle situation and concluded that we'd need to back up and try to gun it through (although we'd likely get stuck). He confidently declared, "If we're gonna do this, then I'm gonna take a piss first" as if marking the territory was some sort of middle finger to the forest. He got back in the car, we backed up as I prayed like the guy about to get his heart ripped out in Temple of Doom, gunned it to the mud puddle, and somehow sloshed through without getting stuck.
Even though we were no longer in danger of death by human, we still had a good ways to go and the topography got no better. In fact, it got much worse. The rocks seemed to increase in size, and the number of streams we had to cross were more abundant. Elliot continued to follow the directions I gave him from offline Google Maps, when the second to worst thing possible (the worst being a flat tire) happened: my phone froze. I gave it a few seconds to come back to life, but the only way to unfreeze it was to close the Google Maps app. When I did that, our route disappeared. Cue straight up f***ing panic.
We had to stop the car in a tornado of biting flies, and El used his work phone data to share Wifi with me. For the next few minutes, it didn't work and even Elliot was getting nervous. Because, you know, we were lost in the middle of the bear and wolves inhabited woods on a mountain in Macedonia. Full pants-crapping situation. Eventually, through the intervention of what had to have been a guardian angel, El's phone came to life and the blue dot was back. We drove in anxious silence for what felt like an hour (but was really only ten minutes) before we saw a clearing and got out of that god-forsaken forest. We let out a huge collective exhale, unclenched our butt cheeks, and continued on to Lake Ohrid. We had another fiasco when we got there, but that's for another blog post.
I'm a big believer in things happening for a reason, and El and I both agreed that we'd never have made it through that forest if we were still in our original car. The fact that the Renault was smaller and had a manual transmission got us through that nightmare route without a scratch on us or the car. Our Lady of Getting People Out of Bear and Wolves Inhabited Macedonian Forests, you rocked it.
My word of warning to anyone facing a "Maurice in Beauty and the Beast lost in the woods" type of situation: listen to the fucking horse....
*We later learned that this road went to the top of Baba Mountain, and would take us way off our route to Ohrid.
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