They told us not to do it. But what did we know, young lads out on our prime adventure? They said getting from Greece to Bosnia was too dangerous, the remnants of the war too flammable. But did we listen? No. Did we take to the shelter of the Adriatic ferry? Not a chance. Our path would lay inland, through the Macedonian mountains and into the heart of Serbia.
4pm Eastern European Time, November 15, 2004.
We say goodbye to Greece after two long weeks of great exploration. We three kings turn our eyes to the north. Our wait at the Thessaloniki train station comes to a bittersweet end as Paul and I finish our masterpiece: a makeshift checkerboard on which to arrange our new plastic chess set. The vagabond’s pleasures are, after all, simple and light. We double check the timetables again and board our train from Greece to Skopje, Macedonia, destined to arrive at 6.45pm.
We find our car, and as two and a-quarter hours pass, Paul poises himself to deal the final check-mate. Our watches tell us we have arrived. “That was quick, I said to Mark.” So, gathering up our bags and supplies, we do what now seems like the most foolish choice. We hop off the train, despite the fact that the Macedonian capitol looks strangely like the countryside. Then falls our first stroke of fate. The car master, as the train begins to inch away, yells out to us, “SKOPJE!”. We point to the ground beneath our feet with great pleasure and call back, “SKOPJE!”. He urges us back to the train, “SKOPJE!”. Now, nerves beginning to bubble, we raise our hands to the sky, and plead back, “SKOPJE?” Then, in a genius act of inter-lingual transcendence, the master stretches his arms like a desperate grandfather: “SKOPJE!”, he cries. Our light-bulbs light. And with out hesitation, we bust our move back to the train, calling out our unnerved praises, “SKOPJE!!!!” While we boarded the moving train, we had no idea that our second stroke of destiny was peering out his window watching three ignorant lads get a second chance. By the way, did you know there was a time zone on the northern border of Greece? Yeah, me neither.
6.45pm Central European Time, November 15, 2004. Skopje.
Having been on the streets for three months, we knew better than to get in a stranger’s car. That’s why I strictly refused to talk with the hyena-man who wanted to give us a “taxi ride.” The man had just seen us hop off our train an hour early. He knew we were vulnerable. He did not know we thought we were wise. “I am a taxi driver. I speak English. Let me help you guys out.” “No thank you, sir,” I retorted. “Okay, have it your way,” he replied. Night was falling on the capitol of this ancient city, whose roots stretch back way beyond its biblical references.
This was a decisive moment for our hopes. We needed to arrive in Livno, Bosnia on the 17th. But, Skjope looked like a twilight giant. Would we find the bus station? Would we find a net-café to find the bus station? Perhaps it would take until the 17th to get our money changed and to exchange that for the right ticket to Saraejvo. As we leaned our packs against the train station bricks, the man drives up to us, in his taxi, and interrupts our meeting of minds. “Come on gentlemen, where are you going? The bus station? I can take you there.”
Either it was the stupidest thing we ever did, or it was the universe aligning our destinies with a kind soul. We had no choice but to trust him. “We are going to Bosnia. Where’s the bus station”? Moments later we were off. The man sped through the city like a bat out of hell and eventually pulled up to an unmarked building. In the dark, we saw what looked like a small gas station with a few miniature cars parked outside. Except there were no pumps or street-lights. This was it. Inside was the most unlikely bus station, or it was the headquarters of our doom. I stepped slowly out of the taxi, pushed down my nerves, and walked through the smoky glass doors with my bags strapped tight and my dignity in tact.
By all grace, the man was good, an angel sent from above. There was no mafia in this unlikely place. It was the bus station, and the teller, she knew no English. Yet, within ten minutes, we had our tickets to Sarajevo via Belgrade and only two hours to bide. The hyena-angel was indeed a NATO translator and a legit taxi driver. He brought us to McDonalds, to their city square, and back to the bus station on time—all with the meter turned off. As we said goodbye, he reached into his backpack and pulled out three plastic packaged muffins. He was not the last vision of Christ we encountered, though his persistent compassion saved us days and at least a hundred dollars we would have eaten in Skopje finding our way. We had toured the grand cathedrals of Europe, been pick pocketed in Rome, on our way to All Saint’s Mass at the Vatican. But it was here we met Jesus, on a dark night in the South Balkans. We were only beginning to learn about the dusk falling in our Christian West. But on the streets of Macedonia, we found the spirit of Christ and his Church alive and well. While the Christian dawn was rising for the global south, God’s angels were at work on her borders even in a land who knew genocide and war only five years before. My education was arriving, though I had little clue that our next five months would be full of new visions of global citizenship which was also deeply Christian.
So off belched the bus to Serbia, into the heart of the Balkans among the clandestine leaders of the Yugoslavian genocide. We slept poorly bouncing along. Morning arrived just as we pulled into what seemed to me soviet central. We explored the streets knowing from our intuitions that we Americans were not welcome. Our breath came alive on the frozen morning air. The fish market froze the night before with its chests of fish suspended in a block of ice. After a few short hours of pinched stomachs, we found bread and sip of milk. Our bus would leave soon for Sarajevo, to travel along the roads of war. I looked at our map and expected a three to four hour ride. I had no idea we were heading into the heart of the mountains.
The bus twisted and turned around the switch backed ravines in the land between Bosnia and Serbia. Time passed slowly on the frozen bus until the snow let down. And it fell like a blanket of thick cream. Our driver slowed some but pressed by the snowy cliffs. The trees, in a just an hour were weighed down heavy, bearing eight, ten inches. We stopped for midday lunch and carried swiftly on. I knew not when we passed the borders. They didn’t matter at this point. All I knew was that we seemed lost in a land of wonder which held within it palpable danger.
6.10pm Central European Time, November 16
When we arrive in Sarajevo, after 10 hours in this bus, winter’s twilight falls. At this point, I have read no history on the war. When the youth of this ravaged land were hiding from mortar, I was but 15. When I was struggling with cracking in my adolescent voice and devastated by young American depression– prompted by petty things– these young men were hiding their faces from the fires of racial and religious genocide. My eyes fall with fresh shock on the bullet-ridden buildings of this majestic capitol. How has life endured here? How could this be? The pressures of traveling soon sweep us along to simpler worries. I often wonder how long I could have stared at the shelled buildings if it hadn’t been for our need to find shelter.
We made our way to the Muslim section of town and get lost in awe of the minarets and the old streets. We find a hostel and drop our things off. The frozen winter’s night still has life, and we made our way through the bazaar. We return the next morning to shop for some keepsakes and make sure to find our way to the station. It was the 17th, our date of expected arrival. Livno, Bosnia, our destination, lies somewhere West over the mountains, which dominate the horizon. We are heading to a resource center for teachers, to live among this people for a handful of weeks. Our hosts expect us today. After another eight-hour ride through the snow-covered mountains, we make it! We miraculously arrive from Greece to Bosnia. It was stupid. And it was truly a journey laced with destiny, for I knew not then how the strife of this country would inspire my imagination when I will encounter racism, violence, poverty, and ecological ruin in my country years from now.
We pull into to the small town, and I immediately smell the forest of chimneys smoking in the early winter’s dusk. Our host sends us immediately to his neighbor’s house to help chop wood, the fuel of choice in this area of the mountains. The whole place smells to me like the camps of my childhood youth. I like it somehow. When we get next store, we met our new friend, a young man about our age who is busy chopping wood. The whole yard is piled high with split logs. He is an extraverted man, keen to tell us about when the first grenades hit. He shows us the bullet-ridden fence. Throughout his story and over our evening of chopping, this young man chants in his thick Slavic accent what appears to be his life’s song pulled straight from 1969,
“War, what is it good for? Absolutely Nothing!”
His voice gets seared in my imagination when I will remember those days of traveling, when the road was long ahead of us and there were a hundred lessons yet to be learned. But in this evening, the sun seems to hang still as our hands grow ripened on the helves of our axes. We swing them for hours in a millennium long ritual, preparing for winter in a land, which is trying to heal from a millennium of racism and violence. The ashes of war hang in the air of this town like the ashes kindling in the hearths of each home, in the mountains, on this night, where Christians and their guns changed everything.