Ohrid, Macedonia – September 2014
September has barely started, but the streets of Ohrid’s old city have already emptied. Gone are the coach bus mobs, the flirting teenagers, and the families. The tourists that remain move in small, intimate clusters, in couples, or alone. I hear Dutch, Russian, and North American voices. The solo tourists are much more conspicuous without the crowds. All of us have cameras as companions. When we pass each other, we nod in solidarity.
I’ve read, more than once, that the worst thing about traveling alone is eating out in restaurants. It’s intimidating to deal with stares of flirtation, animosity, pity, or even curiosity. I sometimes skip meals altogether. Too much to see, too much to do. This is what I tell myself.
The tourist trail begins at St. Sophia. I pay the fee to see the frescoes. Even though there’s a No Photo sign, I sneak a couple of shots. Because other people are doing it, and because sometimes I’m disrespectful, too. A jewelry vendor is in the courtyard. I shield myself behind a cluster of senior citizens and check out the merchandise. There are necklaces made from the Lake Ohrid pearl. My sister’s birthday is coming up. She likes necklaces. The vendor, a young blonde lady, chats with the ladies. Her smile is sincere, so I ask how much the necklace is.
“Necklace and bracelet is six hundred dinars. Ten euros.”
“How much is just the necklace?”
Disappointment, not anger, flashes across her face. “Four hundred dinars. Six euros.”
She takes care of the ladies while I look over the necklace. Because of a deep-seated aversion to accumulation, I never buy myself souvenirs. Except for consumable things like food or wine. But I kind of like the look of this “pearl”. Oh, why not? If I’m playing the tourist today, I may as well do it in style. After the ladies pay and move on, I say, “Okay, I’ll take both.”
A smile lights up her face. The bracelet is too large for my wrist, so the jeweler takes off a pearl. While he does this, the girl tells me about life in Ohrid and the frustrations of being Macedonian. She would like to go and work abroad, like so many others, but it’s difficult to go anywhere, because you need a visa.
“Except for Albania,” the jeweler says with a laugh. He clasps the bracelet around my wrist.
The trail to St. John at Kaneo winds around the side of a cliff. A small tourist boat putters alongside. In the distance, a group of young people jumps from a dock into the water. Their shrieks carry across the water. The mountains are shrouded in ominous clouds. I circle around the church and head up the steep trail to Samuil’s Fortress, passing a large construction site. Very possibly a new luxury resort. Another ominous sight.
At the fortress, a mother shepherds her two young children from lookout point to lookout point. She reads, with shrill enthusiasm, from a guidebook. The children complain that they are hungry.
I climb to the very highest tower and stare out over the gem-hued lake. Instead of awe, I feel a peculiar listlessness. And I begin to understand the ennui that the wealthy must feel. My riches are not material, but they are just as vast. A different kind of accumulation. This breathtaking place has become just one treasure amid many.
2014 has been a year of intense trips. Not enough time in between to regroup and let the itch grow back.
At sunset, I walk to the various piers and docks. Fishermen and locals are the only people I encounter. Music from the empty lakefront bars wafts across the water with the languid waves. Whadaya gonna do with that big fat butt? Wiggle wiggle wiggle. * An absurd contrast with the scenery. I giggle to myself as I imagine what these people would think if they understood the lyrics.
My room is in a villa high up on the hill overlooking the lake. I return at nightfall. The music from the bars reaches me here, too. Balkan folk pop has replaced the American hits. As I drift off to sleep, I wonder if the words are just as vulgar.
I awaken to the sound of gentle waves against shoreline. I pull the curtains aside and step onto the balcony. The listlessness vanishes, leaving in its place a quiet peace.
*lyrics from “Wiggle” by Jason Derulo