When I lived in Baltimore, I tried to take the bus once. I had to take my car to the shop and my roommates weren’t available, so I studied the schedule, asked the others waiting, and hopped on. I was only about 15 minutes from my apartment.
Two buses, two hours, and a long walk later, I decided the bus wasn’t for me.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m not allowed to drive a car. (It’s one of the rule infractions that can get me kicked out.)
For the first time in my life, I’ve become someone who rides the bus. And the kombi (large passenger van). And the occasional taxi. And maybe someday if I play my cards right, a donkey. (Another Peace Corps rule. We must wear a helmet if we decide to ride a donkey.)
After almost a year and a half in Macedonia, my kombi driver drops me off in front of my house and stops if he sees me walking home from the next town. I can hail a bus from the side of the road, or send a package on a bus across the country to a friend. I can hop in a taxi in Kocani and simply say, “дома” (home).
I can’t talk about travel in this country without referencing my favorite travel story. I’ve told it over and over and I’ll keep telling it. It was a kindness that came when I really needed it.
It was last Christmas and I was a brand new baby bird at my new site. I had only taken the bus solo a few times. I was planning to take a short ride (just over an hour) to spend Christmas with a few other volunteers. But I got the time wrong. I arrived at the bus station not early, like I thought, but rather ten minutes late. After I stood there, mouth probably agape, trying to figure out how I was going to get to my destination and asking in faltering Macedonian if there were any other buses or routes, the bus staff took care of me. They called the bus driver, and had him pull to the side of the road and wait for me. One gentleman then walked me to the taxi stand, negotiated a fair price, and gave the driver directions to catch up the bus. I was overwhelmed with the effort they made. It was a huge encouragement as I began my official service. It’s probably also part of the reason that I go out of my way to ask the staff about their day and say hello and good morning, not just state my destination and move along. I like to imagine that they refer to me and my sitemates as those smiley American girls who are always saying hello.
It’s not just riding the bus. I do a lot of things and accept a lot of travel norms that would never have been normal a year ago.
1. Standing on the bus. If there aren’t any seats left, it’s no problem to stand in the aisle. My record so far is just over two hours before someone got off and a seat opened up. I just stood there reading my kindle. No big deal.
2. Sleeping anywhere. This is definitely a Peace Corps skill I’ve developed. I took an eight-hour bus to Belgrade last weekend and my friend said my head essentially rolled back and forth with the bumps, but I just snoozed like I was curled up in a king sized tempurpedic after a big dose of Nyquil.
3. Sharing my life story and chatting with whoever is sitting next to me. Taxi drivers ask if I’m married and how old I am. Babas want to know why I’m here and how Macedonia compares to America. I even had a drunk guy (who reeked of rakija before 9 a.m.) ask if he could taste the cookie cake I was carting across the country once. I always say yes to bus conversation. (However, I said no to the cake tasting.)
4. Hailing a bus/kombi/taxi from the side of the road in my village. I used to see people do this on my way to other cities and wonder how they knew when to stand there and now I regularly walk down to the main road, put my hand up and take a 20 denar ride into the next town. (20 denars is less than fifty cents.)
5. Accepting that everyone will always know everything I’m doing. I got in a kombi before New Year’s Eve and the driver asked if I was headed to Prilep. (I was.) My host mom was with me and laughed and asked how he knew my destination. It’s simple host mom. Everyone knows where the American goes, what she buys at the Pazar (market), when she has a package at the post office, and probably much more than that.
6. Spending half the day on the bus is no big deal. I have to go into the capital for meetings and different Peace Corps events way more often than I’d like, but the two and a half to three hour bus ride (one-way) feels like a pretty typical commute. I used to complain about a 25-minute commute. Now less than three hours is an easy ride.
7. No seatbelt, no problem. If there is a seatbelt, we’re supposed to wear it, but I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had that option in this country.
8. Smoking, optional. On every bus, there is a sign over the driver’s seat prohibiting smoking and cell phones, but I’ve seen plenty of drivers smoking, talking on the phone, or both at the same time.
9. Bus mail. It’s common practice to send packages on the bus to someone waiting at the next station or across the country. My friend sent me an old cell phone to use after mine was stolen and all I had to do was tell the driver I was waiting for a package and they handed me the plastic bag she placed on the bus at her station. No name or ID required.
10. The schedule is right sometimes. I always call the bus station to double check bus times. Even then, they might be earlier or later. Sometimes routes don’t run at all. Luckily, in Macedonia, there is always time.