The Wealthy Tourist

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*lyrics from “Wiggle” by Jason Derulo

58 thoughts on “The Wealthy Tourist

  1. Looking at your pictures, it’s hard to fathom that Macedonia is a Peace Corps country (it was where I was hoping to be placed when I picked Eastern Europe.) Lucky volunteers. Looks like a new travel destination for me!

    • At first glance, I thought the same thing, but the countryside villages are very poor. You would have lived in a nicer climate with friendlier people, though. That’s for sure. It’s a very easy and inexpensive place to travel around. My room in Ohrid, with that unbelievable view, was only 25 euros a night.

    • It’s up in the top 5 for sure, with Plitvice Lakes, Lake Bled, Soomaa Bog (Estonia), and Transylvania. You’re such an Eastern Europe traveler, I’m sure you’d really love it. Go just before or after high season, though. Weather is still great, but the town is not mobbed.

    • Thanks, Robin. I can understand prohibiting photos if there’s a risk of damage to the object being photographed or the photographer. 😉 But otherwise, it’s open season. I’m not sure I’d ever get any writing done if I had that view every day.

  2. Lovely! Funny, I’ve been seeing a lot about Ohrid lately. I never made it there – only to Skopje for a UNICEF meeting when I worked there. Yes, poor and that city – not so pretty. But the surrounding countryside was – as is so much around those parts. I loved the food, though! Was just describing Pohanji Sir to my neighbor. We have all these long sweet peppers and I remember a great meal I had there.
    Thanks for the reminder of traveling in solitude. Such a mixed bag, isn’t it. If only the meal parts could be worked out – I love spending days wandering by myself. Anyway, we’re here with you! Thanks for sharing your journey.

    • Thank you, Tricia. Happy to hear that it brought back good memories. Have you heard that Skopje is going through a renaissance? I think you’d be very surprised how it looks today. The new style definitely has personality. I’ll be posting about it in the coming weeks. As for eating out alone – my solution is to book rooms that have access to a kitchen, or at least a fridge.

  3. Your photography is magnificent!! You have had a busy 2014. You are right about regrouping after a trip. Perhaps that is why your blog is so powerful.

    “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” ― Anaïs Nin

  4. So gorgeous, these photos! I laughed out loud at the Albanian part. My hubby is Albanian, left after communism fell and now has Canadian citizenship, but he remembers visiting his dad during summertime, from Italy (where he was living with his mom), and being able to visit just a few surrounding countries like Macedonia and Montenegro. It’s something I don’t often consider, since I’ve ONLY ever had a Cdn passport, but boy are we blessed to have them! 🙂

    • It’s so easy to get there, and not expensive…direct flight to Skopje from Vienna, then a direct bus to Ohrid. They even speak English at the bus stations. Go! 😀

      • I must admit that I’m attracted by these places and wonder how you travel in these eastern countries. Is train a possibility? In Slovakia we travelled in group and therefore by bus.
        Have a nice evening.
        Best regards Martina

        • In some of these countries, like Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, train is a good option, though they are often late. But in Macedonia, the trains are less frequent, much slower, and don’t go everywhere, The bus system seems to be good, though. The country is so small that bus rides are no more than 4 hours.

  5. Ohrid is completely new to me. So many places! You touch on some perennial issues for the solo traveller, eating alone and feeling ‘listless’. Complicated both. Recently there was a thought provoking article in The Guardian on bucket lists and the idea of ticking places off. It made me stop and think.

    • So many places indeed. This trip, especially, made me wonder about my desire to see as many places as possible. Is quantity really so important? I need to look up that article.

  6. Love your great shots of this fascinating place with so much to explore, and the waters are so inviting!

    For so many reasons I enjoy dining on my own, either it’s a relaxing break or I meet someone who adds another layer to the place!

    • I’d have loved to have swum in there, but it was unseasonable chilly. I can imagine that you meet people very easily, so dining alone would be a welcome opportunity for you. I’m very introverted, but I don’t mind eating alone as long as people don’t stare.

  7. Beautiful post, Julie. There were so many parts of it that resonated with me. It is the light in those photographs that is so compelling, the clouds that at once threaten violence and hope. It would be hard for anyone not to feel a little ennui beneath that sky amidst a culture so rich in history.

    I had to smile at your paragraph about eating alone. It was the very first time I travelled alone on vacation where I struggled with that whilst in Halifax. It was truly a coming of age moment for me as I wrestled with those same feelings you describe. Something so small with such significance for us …..

    • Always nice to hear your thoughts, Dale. Eating alone is a small thing, for sure, and I think we only need to realize how small it is (in the grand scheme of things) to get over it. But deep-seated unease is hard to shake.

      • Certainly it is. I don’t mean to minimize it or the difficulty of shaking it. It was as harder to kick my butt to sit in that Halifax restaurant alone as any challenge I’ve set for myself, whether trekking across the chasm of a gorge or willing myself to finish a 100k bike ride. I can truly empathise with the challenge, believe me.

        • I didn’t think you were minimizing it at all. I actually got over the initial horror by telling myself it was just a restaurant and I didn’t know anyone there. Plus, I was really, really hungry. 🙂

  8. Beautiful photos! I have a friend that visit Macedonian and he told me, many of the girls wanted to marry him so they can come to the US, this post made me wonder why, is it that bad for them?

    Good for you buying something for you, I am so envious of you, you have travel a lot lately… I travel through your photos and writing. 🙂

    • Hi Doris – It’s like that in all of the former communist countires – women look for a foreign man so that they can move elsewhere (not only the US) or because they see foreign men as better than their local men. It’s like a status symbol. And they think life is better elsewhere. In some cases it is, in others, not really. You can make more money, maybe, but the cost of living is much higher, too.

      Slovakia has a higher standard of living than the other countries, but I recently read that 1 in 8 Slovak women marry foreign men. Men from Western Europe, the US, and other “better” countries come here because they are treated like kings by the women.

  9. The space, the small gaps between mountains and sea. Something about places, Julie, narrow boulevards of land where communities splice a way of life in cultural resistance (not the right word, more thinking of another) between day and night. Here at twelve paces behind, the scenes wake like today’s spring morning.

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