Our ride out of Thessaloniki was a non-stop parade of factories and industrial sites for hours. According to Tara, the road was full of "mammoth ferocious dogs bred with grizzly bears". Thankfully they were mostly chained up and we didn't have any trouble with them.
With absolutely perfect weather for cycling and the excited feeling that comes from approaching a new country, we were in great spirits. In spite of our shared enthusiasm, for some reason we were both feeling very lethargic. So, we took no hesitation in spending a long liesurely lunch, parked in front of a junky field.
From Southern Italy to Tunisia, and now in Greece, we've become accustomed to obscene amounts of litter. It's not pretty, but the cool thing about it is that you can often find something useful in the piles of junk. Yesterday, Tara found the perfect box to mail home our D60, as well as some great packing material! We didn't need this furniture though, which was just hanging out in the field.
A week or so ago, I discovered we can use our prime lenses as macro lenses by flipping them over. A few days later, I found an adapter ring on eBay which will let us mount one of them backwards so we don't have to hold it up to the body of the camera by hand to take a picture. The seller, who was in Athens, shipped it to our hotel in Thessaloniki. Finally, an easy shipment!
Here is Tara's first macro attempt at "flower hour" using it. This flower was TINY!
Unfortunately, the adapter doesn't fit our wide angle prime without a "step up" ring to make it a bit bigger. I'm still holding all the pieces together for super macro shots and it is really tricky!
While Tara was taking photos of flowers, I walked around looking for good bugs. We encounter lots of insects in our daily life these days, but this was the first time I went specifically looking for them. After less than a minute I'd run across numerous spiders, tens of bees, some very large ants and more tiny black bugs hanging out on flowers than can be counted. I wonder how much life we smash out of existence with every step we take?
Unsatisfied with these "normal" bugs, I kept looking until I found what I think was a tick and scooped it up. Carefully placed on a rock wall for a photo shoot, here is the result. Tara thinks he looks like a crotchety old guy with male pattern baldness and some gnarly facial hair. Clicking on the photo will show the bigger version.
While taking pictures of "old man tick", I noticed a minuscule speck of red moving in the crevices of the wall. Working together with Tara who put her finger near him so I could orient myself, we managed this shot. The depth of field is so shallow I almost missed the little bugger. I think he looks like a scab with legs. Tara says they used to crush these tiny bugs to use for red dye "back in the day".
After our relaxing lunch, the scenery slowly began to change as we neared the border of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It was as flat as the prairie land we both grew up in, and the bright green grassy fields were a stunning contrast with the wide open blue skies. Before too long, Tara called us to a halt so she could run into the fields and take this:
Finally, when the dirty chemical factories and tire factories were all gone, they'd been replaced entirely by small farms. All of the farmers we passed smiled and waved from high atop their slowly chugging tractors. It was so peaceful, and very, very quiet. I really love the countryside.
As we rode, we listened to the basic Russian language lesson that Sergei recorded with us. They'll speak Macedonian across the border, but since we'll be passing through our Eastern European countries pretty quickly, we're going to stick to getting our basic Russian up to snuff. We pedaled along, trying to wrap our tongues around the sounds, shouting things like "zdrassstvoooyoutyaaa" to the grass waving in the wind.
The final ten kilometers to Macedonia were hillier than the rest, and we passed several military bases along the way. On such a lovely spring day with flowers blooming and the sun shining, it seemed incomprehensible that many balkan borders have been fraught with skirmishes and wars for decades.
We approached the Greek border with a tiny bit of trepidation. We've overstayed our schengen visa (US citizens are allowed 90 total days in the EU every six months) by many weeks. Additionally, no one stamped our passport when we arrived in Greece. >
Thankfully there were no problems. We both breathed a sigh of relief as a very nice Greek border guard clomped his official mark on our passports and wished us a good journey. We did a lot of hangwringing about this issue before we left, and have talked to many others with similar concerns.
Here is our final say on the issue: in our experience, if you're a cycle tourist crossing small borders overland nobody cares. However, we won't be flying back out of a European airport. If we were, we might be a little more cautious.
A hundred meters or so after our exit from Greece came the Macedonian border crossing. It, too, was a quick, friendly affair. They told us how much they loved America as they stamped their giant stamps in our passports and waved us on.
And there we were! In a new country! The first thing we noticed was an abundance of casinos and duty-free shops. After this initial impression, things calmed down a bit. Soon, the changes which had begun gradually before we crossed the border kicked into full swing. It was full-on farm country. Everyone had a plot of land, and everyone was in the field working it by hand.
As we rode along, grinning from ear to ear, most people we passed smiled and waved. Kids were zipping around on in-line skates and bicycles, and couples were out for strolls everywhere. It was a nice change of pace; we didn't see anything like this during our time in Greece.
Our first order of business was to find an ATM and withdraw some money so we could avoid changing euros (our backup currency) to Macedonian dinars. The first ATM we found didn't accept Visa, so Tara used a Mastercard debit card from an account she still holds in Illinois. She inserted the card into the slot, punched in her pin number, and selected the amount she wished to withdraw.
…and then the machine flashed a message: "Card Retained" and spit out a reciept informing us of the same thing. Ummm… so her card got sucked up and eaten by an ATM in Macedonia. It was Saturday, the banks were closed, and wouldn't open until Monday. We enlisted the help of some friendly English-speaking passers-by, although there was nothing they could really do to assist us.
Upon weighing our options, we concluded it was no big deal. This was the first time in a year we'd even tried to use this card, so we were fairly certain we wouldn't need it again anytime soon. We have three others, so we went to different ATM that did accept Visa, and successfully withdrew money. Then we had to choose… stay in this town until Monday to hopefully retrieve a card we never use, or continue on and call her bank to cancel it. We opted to keep going.
After a bit of looping around through a quaint little village of crumbling handmade brick cottages and chickens running in the street, we got back on our intended route and found a quiet grove of trees to camp in.
Tara made mashed potatoes and gravy while I set up camp, and then we eagerly took out our passports so we could admire the stamps. Tara also called her dad to investigate the card issue, and found out that she had actually already been issued a new card which was waiting for her at home! The ATM connundrum was no fault of Macedonia, but was in fact due to its being old. Phew!
Tomorrow we head north along the Vardar river, on our way to possibly stay with a Warm Showers host in Stip. For now, we sleep. Our first night in Macedonia!