The plumbing is usually a challenge
10.06.2015 - 14.06.2015 36 °C
Some countries remain foremost in mind for a long time. Macedonia will be one of those for me. The reason … my underpants caught fire. Fortunately I was not wearing them at the time but it was close enough for my liking. Flypaper has this strange habit of laundering the ‘smalls’ each night. It’s strange because before leaving home she packs enough changes for a month. It’s a waste of breath explaining over and over that she could get a bulk deal from the hotel laundry once a month and save a lot of daily trouble. I think it’s a psychological security thing. However, using heated towel rails, heaters and hair dryers to hasten the task is not psychological – it’s tending on suicidal because, underwear today, the whole damn hotel tomorrow. You should join me in worrying. I’ve started checking the fire escapes.
Flypaper also urges me daily to tell you about the plumbing. I tell her there is no way to explain 3rd world plumbing except to say it differs from our expectations. Take today – an indigenous hotel in a place called Prizren that proudly displays 3 stars and a tell-tail discoloured patch where the other one fell off. The room is more adequate than usual … except soon after arrival the bathroom floor was flooded. I called reception who dispatched a maintenance man to tell me this had never occurred before so it must be my fault. This is normal. Our communications are in an English variant that has 36 letters in its alphabet and ones tongue attached to ones arms. I suggested he turn on the shower to see what happens. He does and is astonished when the water on the floor rises to alarming levels threatening the adjacent threadbare carpet. Using a light generated by the latest smartphone he discovers the problem and 20 minutes later announces it is fixed. I’m delighted and suggest he takes the opportunity to test the hand basin. Reluctantly he does and, surprise, the water again flows towards the door. He’s getting better and fix’s that in about 4 minutes. While praising him for his maintenance skills I reached over and flushed the toilet – and watched his facial expression as the gurgling heralded a new flood of near biblical proportions. I considered ‘we’ had found the principal problem. The smartphone discovered the pan was loose on the wall. Actually, Flypaper had also discovered that when she created the first flood. She said, ‘The toilet wriggles around”. That is difficult to explain in Kosoglish. This maintenance procedure used up all our towel allocation and caused an internal fracas that will likely involve senior management and even accountants. My 2nd call to reception did result in new towels. I later called reception again asking for a couple of glasses to assist taking our medication (Flypaper decided to open the bottle of cognac to settle her nerves). The receptionist answered the phone, “What do you need now?” Perhaps you will now understand why I’m reluctant to report on plumbing. It uses a lot of words.
After a slow bumpy drive from Albania we arrived in Macedonia. Most think Macedonia is an ancient civilization that spawned Alexander The Great, conquered most of the then known world and subsequently disappeared. This is true, but a few years back an ambitious group of people convinced Yugoslavia, that they were not ‘slavs’ and they would behave well if given independence. They did this in a very nice way in 1991.
Since then the small country of 2.1 million people have behaved very well and have benefited from politician’s who were far less corrupt than others in the region (but still quite ego driven.). The result is a nice country with good infrastructure, a near invisible police force and an economy that is less troubled than its neighbours. You should visit Macedonia soon – before westernization destroys its charm. We were impressed with clean clear lakes and rivers (and the assurance that the public water supply was safe to drink. It proved to be so.) They have a sustainable forestry policy, no visible rubbish anywhere and farm trout to repopulate the rivers and Lake Ohrid. They are really annoyed that the released trout don’t stay on the Macedonian side because the Albanians on the other side happily catch and eat them without even expressing thanks.
In Ohrid for we had a guide who suggested we call him Chris because his real name was made up of 11 consonants which included a couple of X’s and a triangle. Chris was 52, has a younger wife who is a teacher and a son who is at a troublesome age. Of course, I was able to advise him how to deal with both. He believes that, if he hadn’t spent so long in the army when younger, he would be much richer now and may be able to retire soon. He was pleasant company, a good negotiator when we decided to take a boat ride on the lake - and always ready to assist any other struggling tourists – who gained the benefit of Chris’s help and our funding of his time. He walked us through the fish farm, construction sights, through private property and lots of places that reminded me that once we could do similar things until of anti-fun police made rules against all that sort of stuff.
A couple of days later in Skopje we enjoyed the company of a beautiful young lady guide who, astonishingly, gave similar answers to many of our questions as Chris. I suspect we received good information. Both were fiercely Macedonian and both have high hopes for the future. Our young lady was called Maja. Of great interest was her story about her great grandfather who sadly had the family farm taken away during communism. They have all the documents going back to ancient times proving their ownership but have so far failed to succeed in having it returned. I suspect the principal reason is that the ‘farm’ is now near central Skopje and is worth a fortune. Many others are in similar sad situations. Their only hope is that Macedonia joins the EEC and they can appeal to a higher authority.
Maja shared a couple of unusual titbits – Legally produced Macedonian Opium is the best in the world – this was the first country in the world to have full access to wireless broadband – in spite of Albania’s claim, Mother Teresa was born in Skopje (to Albanian parents) – the Macedonian flag was recognized as the 2nd best design in the world – the country has its own 4,000 year old ‘Stonehenge’.
We last passed through Skopje in 1975. It’s changed since then. Now it’s a city of over 1 million and has most of the problems of all other fast growing metropolitan centres. (When will ‘guvmints’ realize that the answer lies in simple decentralization?) Maja pointed out lots of huge new guvmint buildings, dozens of huge statues depicting notable historic Macedonians and wistfully wished all this wasted money had been spent more wisely. She had observed that the tourists didn’t come to see any of this monstrous ‘new’ stuff but loved the old ‘Stone Bridge’ and other historic places or natural features. Same the world over.
Both Chris & Maja were happy that we could use our own ‘air conditioned’ car – so were we. The temperature during our stay in Macedonia has been 35-37 *C with high humidity. Because 3 people in a car can move pretty quickly we were able to drive out of the city to cooler lakes, limestone caves and 13th century churches. To be honest, once one has been in a couple of old churches and monasteries the other 10,000 have looked very similar. These days the ancient religious edifices’ serve a purpose of alternate salvation – the saving of the economy by providing places for tourists to purchase tickets.
Our next destination was Kosovo. All previous study and knowledge of the war during 1998/9 had prepared us for a basket case. Don’t cry for Kosovo. It may have lost the battle but it’s won the war. The total country is rebuilt with enormous new building in modern architectural splendor. House are new, businesses are new, highways are new – and everything looks astonishingly prosperous – and growing more so by the day. It’s almost unbelievable and both Flypaper and I are asking where the funding has come from? We are also sure that any refugees who fled the country will now be very annoyed they didn’t hang about. Likewise those owners of the (few) buildings that weren’t badly damaged enough to rebuild, will be seriously miffed.
I suspect a sign of prosperity overlooked by other observers is the presentation of the beggars. It the capital city, Prishtina, the beggars are very stylish. We were impressed by a lady begging at a major intersection wearing smart casual clothes and carrying a large branded handbag. Had she arrived at our home collecting for the Labour party we would have been totally taken in. My first inclination was to suggest to Flypaper that she exchange ensembles – but it was a busy street and we were on a timeline. So I gave her one of the airline ‘business class’ bag that contain cosmetics and other feminine essentials.
Having crossed hundreds of borders during the past 40 years we consider ourselves border ‘connoisseurs’. We can pick a good or bad one within minutes. We judge the Balkan borders experienced to date to be very good for countries that have endured problems with their neighbours and remain a bit paranoid. Kosovo did receive a demerit point when the immigration guy in our lane closed down for a few minutes and strolled off to buy a new packet of cigarettes. However, he redeemed himself by being jovial and demonstrative of his Kosoglish. Perhaps the nicotine shot arrived just in time. When asked by customs if we have anything to declare I sometimes (depending on the demeanour of the enquirer) say, “At our age we are not a threat to your country”. (Little do they know that this very Blog could undermine the security of the nation through disclosure of vital little known information.)
Kosovo is another small country of 2.2 million people. It’s landlocked and has few natural resources. It does have limestone clay and coal – and as a result, unlimited cement. Huge open mines and cement factories are all over the landscape. As we entered the country we passed the biggest cement factory we have ever seen – bigger even than one in Russia. Interestingly, every retail business sells cement. Petrol stations, takeaway food shops, garden ornament manufactures, furniture shops, car sales – all had pallets of bagged cement ready for us to take home and build a really ugly concrete monstrosity.
Flypaper made a grave error of judgment by leaving Macedonia with about 10 Euros worth of Denar– their currency which is not exchangeable in Kosovo. I stressed for a couple of kilometres then decided we may be able to convince a car washer to take the currency. We found one with no customers and, with the help of a neighbouring car salesman put the proposition. A deal was struck. We know our offer was about twice the going rate for a wash and also knew the guy thought we were gullible suckers. (That’s how all the best deals are done). He did an excellent job and I handed over the cash with the comment, “You can visit Skopje and spend this money”. He replied, “Yes, I may go there and look for a wife”. We expect to be invited to the nuptials and hope the firstborn is named Maurice.