Category Archives: travel

A Day in the Life: Skopje Strolling

This post is one-half of a day in the life double dosage. Check my sister’s blog for her take on the same day.
We had arrived in Skopje the day before. It’s known as the City of Seven Gates, which is admittedly a sweet nickname. But it should be called Statue City, because I don’t see how any city in the world could have more statues. Many of these are Alexander the Great adjacent, so needless to say they’re pretty rad.
I present a very small selection but I saw a few hundred in my wanders.

Saturday was our only full day in Skopje and we had a bit of a choice. A 3 hour walking tour, which was by all accounts quite good. Or finding our way to a bus and going to Matka Canyon, a wild region with tons of endemic butterflies, moths, and moth-erflies. Pretty easy choice, really. We had a free breakfast at the hostel (Shanti, which is easily one of the best places I’ve stayed in the last four months) which was coffee (for both of us) and muesli with fruit juice (for me).

Conflicting information resulted in us getting to the bus station an hour and half early, but it was a pleasant ride out of Skopje. The bus dropped us off about 10 minutes out of the village but we’d heard this could happen. Neither of us knew exactly what to expect: how far did the hike go, what did it entail, where did it go, and so on. This added to the magic of the day.

What a dam view!

We went through a small town: a scattering of restaurants, some lazy cats and chonky dogs. A little stream bubbled past and the high, rocky mountains hinted at the canyon to come. Many people hired kayaks or joined boat rides. This was tempting but not, in the end, compelling enough as following the track by foot. At first there were lots of people and everyone was so friendly it felt almost eerie. Didn’t they know they were in the Balkans? The land of resting fuckyou face? At any rate, they thinned out pretty quickly though and we had the trail mostly to ourselves.

I can only give the area the highest praise by saying the canyon reminded me of Seoraksan, one of my favorite hikes in the world. Okay, it didn’t reach the highs of Seoraksan but it was much easier to hike. It’s pretty much flat, in fact, and so required very little effort for the scenery. Eventually the trail ended and we made our way back. Normally out-and-backs are a bit of a bummer but in this case it was no hardship to see the views all over again.

We got back to the spot where the bus had left us off. There were half-a-dozen other people waiting there, some of whom had come with us on the bus. This was reassuring, but more and more taxi drivers showed up, saying “the bus doesn’t come today.” This is an old trick, of course, and we had seen there were half a dozen busses coming throughout the day. We waited an hour, ignoring the ever-more-desperate taxi drivers.

Finally a few tourists walked past us and let us know the bus had dropped them off half an hour down the road. We all got up and walked down the road. A taxi driver warned us “4 kilometers, very far.” Then he got in his car and let us know “6 kilometers to bus stop.” Eventually he left but funnily enough he actually wasn’t lying. It was a nice walk, with a cozy valley dotted with houses and the occasional church on one side gleaming in the late afternoon sun. But it did take more than an hour; eventually we reached enough civilization to ask a few shop keepers and stood at the side of road (no signs at all) until the bus came.

We got back in time to wander old town Skopje and the Turkish bazaar. We’d seen it the day before but only in the rain. Skopje has a reputation as a boring town but I found it endlessly fascinating.

Of special note were the ice cream flavors. In addition to classics like chocolate and “snikers” are special ones like Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, and Tiktok. These weren’t vegan so I didn’t try them but we can all admit that it’s a pretty good idea.

We didn’t find a lot of vegan restaurants in Skopje but the hostel had a decent kitchen. Janessa made some soy nuggets that we combined with hummus, corn, beans, and spinach in wraps and they were excellent.

One of the reasons we chose a hostel (other than saving money) was to meet other travelers and this night was 10/10 great. There were people from Chile, Spain, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and we chatted for hours about travel, our favorite Cyrillic letters ( ф was a clear winner, in case you were wondering) and so much more. A dude who kind of worked at the hostel had been to 75 countries, once traveling from Estonia to Capetown. An American girl told us about going to college with Obama’s daughter. The Chilean dude recommended hikes in the Andes. A guy from Egypt showed us the millions of views he got on Insta, Tiktok and so on. Many of us had been places the others were going and vice-versa so a lot of practical travel knowledge was shared. The party ended abruptly at midnight, so it’s only appropriate for this blog to do so as well.

Have you been to ______?

Sometimes it’s easy to know what countries you’ve been to. You spent a week in Spain or lived in Brazil for a year or traveled through Asia for 3 months. Those are countries you’ve “been to.” Some people use the verb “did” (ie “I did Vietnam last year.”) but I’m not a big fan of that terminology. A lot of travelers count the countries they’ve visited and in these cases it’s easy to know where you’ve been.

Even this way is a little crude. I can spend one night in Athens, drinking grappa until I can see several Parthenons and I’ve “been” to Greece in the exact same way that someone who lived there for 5 years, learned the language and explored the country has. So it’s going to be broad brush strokes no matter what. Even our limited relationship language (itself far too didactic) is better. You could have your one-night-stand countries, the countries you dated casually, the countries were more serious, the countries you were engaged to, and so on. This level of granularity is obviously ridiculous and not going to happen but it illustrates how much room there is to distinguish different kinds of visits.

And this says nothing of countries you’ve visited twice, thrice, or even more times.

Other times it’s less clear even than that. What if you take the night bus from Norway to Denmark and pass through Sweden? Technically your body has been there but you saw nothing other than maybe an Ikea or two gleaming in the night. Or if you fly from San Francisco to Seoul and have a layover in Tokyo. Have you been to Japan? These countries are exist in a liminal state of visiting. You’ve technically been there but had no meaningful experiences.

To combat this, some travelers develop their own metrics. “You have to leave the airport,” is a credo many travelers live by. Presumably you can substitute airport for train/bus/car. I’ve talked to some who believe you haven’t visited a country until you’ve pooped there.

I’m here to propose a new way to measure. I think once you have learned something without meaning to about a country is when you can say you’ve properly been there. This precludes checking wikipedia for history or duolingo for a phrase. It’s when you learn a word just from hearing it or witness a custom different to your own. It’s when you talk to people from that country and learn something of the history or culture. It’s when you learn something of the politics: who the president is, why people are marching, what this holiday that you didn’t even know existed is all about.

This moment might take a day, might take a week, maybe a month. But until you’ve gleaned something new about the place you’re in, you might as well have never left the airport.