Because we don't need a visa, we pass the Macedonian border without any problems. Unfortunately, the garbage has a passport too. A huge mound is waiting for us on the other side of the dotted line. As we pass by, a pack of about 20 dogs are ruffling through the refuse, looking for their dinner.
It's night time and we roll into the town of Debar, not knowing where we're going. We ask a group of people for a place to stay and a teenager on a bike offers to take us to a cheap hotel which is located above a gas station. When we get there, the gas bar attendant asks us where we are from. When we say Canada, the first thing he tells us is that he spent 4 months in jail in Windsor Ontario. His immigration papers were, apparently, not in order. I head up to the hotel to check out the place. It's clean but it's full of men smoking cigarettes. I tell Michèle that I don't think we should stay there. She tells me she doesn't mind the truckers and that we are too tired to go anywhere else. Turns out everyone is really nice and we end up having a good night sleep.
The next day is another good ride with little traffic. We wind up and down the side of a mountain, following a river.
Unfortunately, some sections have so much garbage that you can't even see the natural ground or the wood of the trees. It's all candy wrapped with plastic bags. Much to my surprise, there is a guy standing in all the refuse by the side of the river... fishing. Back on the road, the traffic gets heavier. So, we hang a right and end up in a town call Vevčani. This is where my rear tire goes flat. Upon inspection, a karate chop is revealed on my inner tube and on the inside of the tire. The guilty party is most likely an Albanian pot hole. Anyway, finding the hole on the inner tube provides entertainment for the locals.
I end up spending way too much time on the problem. This gives me a chance to chat with the owner of the guest house. He tells me that the house used to be owned by the grandfather of the guy who invented the x-ray. There are pictures of him all over the house including one of him shaking hands with Einstein.
We have regained some anonymity. Macedonia is more touristic, so we no longer get the vacant stare of amazement when we cycle by. There should be a name for it. Can't think of one right now. The traffic is a little more tame and people are less car-centric than in Albania. This makes our ride to Ohrid a little more pleasant.
A few days later, it's climb time again. So, we call upon Granny to carry us up the hill. Sure enough she does on this glorious first day of spring. At the pass, it's not quite spring yet. In fact, the road is snowed in and cars can't get through. But we can... ha ha!
The fancy Albanian Mercedes will have to go back down hill. We will go down hill too, but on the other side of the pass. It's freezing cold and the temperature seems to drop to -20 as we get hit by the windchill from the descent. This is the first time a downhill ride has been more difficult then the uphill.
At the bottom, we can no longer feel our legs and hands. We go into the first restaurant we can find where we meet Alain, an Belgian man who speaks English and Macedonian. He helps us find a room for the night. It's clean and cheap. The only problem is the gas heater. We suspect that it was leaking. The result is that we both woke up with splitting headaches. Nothing a little "fresh" air can't fix. And it does, right into our face in the form of a strong head wind. The road is flat and the landscape boring, aside from the coal power plant off in the distance.
The next town is called Prilep. There, we find out that there is a monastery 10 kilometres away where we can spend the night and eat for cheap. But on the way out, when asking someone for directions, we find out that the monastery is high up in the mountains via a rough dirt road. By this point, there are a few people around us. One guy offers to put us up for the night. We accept and quickly find out that he is frustrated that he is unable to get a job on a Caribbean cruise ship. It's all about visa problems. Unfortunately, we are not well-connected politicians and could not offer any help with his visa problem. I did, however, fix a few glitches on his computer. We ended up having a very nice evening. His mother was exceptionally nice. Cooking us dinner and laying out pyjamas for us to sleep in.
In the morning, we head right onto a main road that is bloated with traffic. All day it's trucks and cars passing us at a hundred klicks. This is a fundamental problem I am having with cycling. I can't seem to get used to riding in traffic. Images of one of us being pulverised by some moron talking on his (or her) cell phone run through my head all day. The ride finally ends at Negotino. We are stressed out and in a bad mood. But it's about to get a lot worse because Michèle gets news that her mom has passed away. Like a huge monkey wrench in our spokes, the whole trip is put into question. It seems fitting that the next three days are spent in a monastery. The place is peaceful. It gives Michèle a chance to get herself together. During our stay, we make the decision to go back to Canada for Michèle to be with her family.
At first, the thought of returning home was met with depressive thoughts. But after several discussions, it seems like the right thing to do. This year has been filled with amazement but it's been difficult. We are tired. Sometimes numbingly so.
There is still a bit of cycling to do. First, it's another mountain pass to a town called Stip. Upon arrival, Zikica, our WarmShower host, is waiting for us with his dog Bush. He tells us that he would have named the dog something else, but the name was already established when he got him. Zikica tells us that we can stay as long as we want. This gives us the opportunity to get organized for the return home. In the mean time, Zikica shows us around town.
Our tour of the city includes the public baths which are much more liberal then traditional hammams. There is a section for men and one for women, but once in our respective areas, everyone is naked and washing up. Later on, Zikica introduces us to Katie and Eric. An American couple from Cincinnati. She is here on a scholarship and he's just chilling out but that wasn't always the case. Eric used to have the toughest job in the world: Commercial fishing in Alaska. Spending ten months out at sea on a small fishing boat. Working 14 hour shifts hauling crab traps out of three degree water onto a frozen deck. He shows me some video that makes our cycling journey look like a walk to the corner store. They too offer us all the hospitality anyone could wish for. Michèle and I want to thank Katie, Eric, Zikica and his family for everything they did for us.
Our next and final destination is Thessaloniki in Greece. When it's time to leave Stip, Zikica rides with us till it's time to say goodbye.
Because we decided to ride to Thessaloniki, our journey home seems way longer than it actually is. The final day is a ride that I would rather forget. Looking at Google maps, we thought that we would be able to ride on secondary roads. But after getting lost several times, we opted for the main road which ends up on a three lane highway for the last ten kilometres. Setting the stage for the mother of all infernal rides. Being the only way into the city, we bite the bullet and hopefully not the hood of a car. Like modern day water torture, cars whiz by us. One per second. Still emotionally fragile, Michèle has a break down every kilometre. Eventually, the traffic slows down and we get to the city centre. But we're not at the finish line yet. We now have to navigate through the streets of the old city in order to get to where we will be spending the next few days. We ask several people for directions without much success until a university student name Alex spends a good half an hour explaining the way to our destination. Despite the map looking like the blue prints of the brain, we find a way that is easy to follow. The map shows pedestrian sections. Turns out they're staircases. Our host lives at the highest point in Thessaloniki. We have to push our bikes up the hill and carry them up the stairs. Several times I contemplate getting a hotel room but I kept having the feeling that if we make it, then everything else would fall into place. At the top, we borrow somebody's cell phone to call our host because we can't find her place. Finally, she comes and meets us. It was like an angel coming down from the heaven to take us away from our suffering. At her apartment, Zoe makes us dinner. Giddy from the exhaustion, we pass out on her couch.
The next day, the hunt is on for boxes to pack our stuff. Lucky for us, Thessaloniki has a garbage strike. So, there's plenty of choice. Later on, we meet with Konstantinos, a friend of Zoe's. He's the one that originally got us in contact with her. He shows up with two bike boxes. One less thing to stress about. Once packed, both he and Zoe give us a lift to the airport. Thanks guys, you really made our trip so much easier.
At the airport we wait till 2:30 in the morning to go to the checkin counter. The agent is half asleep. So much so that he forgets to charge us the 300 euros to put our bikes on the plane. What a bonus! The rest of the flight goes without a glitch (aside from the 5 Euro coffee at the Zurich airport). In Montreal, our bikes arrive without a scratch on them. The sun is shining and a tail wind pushes us all the way to our friends place where we will be staying. I guess my hunch was right to keep pushing to the top of the hill. Everything did fall into place.
My Mom's health had been in steady decline for years. So I kind of knew, when I said goodbye to her before Benoit and I left on this trip almost a year ago, that it would be the last time I saw her alive. That made our departure even more difficult. However I was encouraged by the thought that my Mom would want me to fulfil my dreams of travel. In fact, I believe she would have been mad at me if I hadn't left. I would think of her often as I pedalled along. How much she would have loved the journey I was on, with every day bringing new discoveries to all my senses. In my emails to her, I tried to capture those experiences in words so that she could armchair-travel with me. Even though I knew my Mom's death was imminent, and would be a relief to her to be free of the pain of illness, it was a shocking blow when I heard the news that she had died. For some silly reason, I thought that I would have been more prepared somehow. I wasn't expecting to feel as overwhelmingly sad as I did, and more surprising, that all the strength would go out of my legs. Forget pedalling, I was even shaky walking down a flight of stairs. I was so grateful to have the quiet calm of the monastery in Negotino where we could rest for a few days as I dealt with the chaos of emotions and memories. It comforted me also to see continuity of life in the form of a brand new litter of puppies from the monastery's dog. How Benoit and I got from Negotino to Thessaloniki is almost all a blur, a slow-motion ride that seemed to last an eternity in my mind but that took only a week in reality. What stands out crystal clear against the blur are the people who showed us such extraordinary kindness as Benoit and I prepared to make our way home to Canada. My heartfelt thanks to Zikica and his family, Eric and Katie in Stip; Zoe, Konstantinos and Giorgos the neighbour in Thessaloniki. It was as if we were held aloft by their helping hands. I felt the need to be home, and to help my family in preparing a memorial for our Mom. After saying a proper goodbye, I hope the strength will return to my legs and the motivation to continue our travels. I know that is what my Mom would want. I can almost hear her now, saying, "Pack me in your bags and take me with you."
All our photos from Macedonia are here. All our photos from Greece are here.