I remember when the sun first poked its head out. I’d taken it as a given in Spain, but by the time those first rays broke through the cast iron clouds we were already in Kosovo and already up to our waist in quicksand. It was only two degrees celsius at the summit of what was an incredibly beautiful climb but I wasn’t aware, I was stripping off layers trying to soak in those first shards of warmth.
The hundreds of kilometers of highways clogged by old Yugo’s with deranged drivers that had lead us to the bottom of the mountain I now stood on were still there, and there were hundreds more awaiting us on the other side, but right then they might as well have never existed. For atop this peak, we had the sun, the fucking sun!
It took three days of being the coldest I’ve ever been. It took three days of being lost. It took three days of being out of control. It took three days trudging through Albania. It took three days of flirting with the line between epic and dumb I feared I’d forgotten where it was and dipped below it, dragging reasonable people down down with me. But as I stripped off my shirt and closed my eyes I realized it all immediately. If you want to stand on the top of a mountain in sun this bright, you have to stand, on the top of a mountain in the soaking ice rain.
Those rays transformed my perspective on an entire chunk of the world. That’s why I do trips like this. I want to have a revised perspective on the world, my life and most importantly the beauty of home. For me the value of a long bike trip is revealed after returning home. Prolonged periods of physical discomfort and emotional uncertainty, reinforced daily with a dose of endorphin fueled achievement, have the power to impact your entire outlook. Other walks of life push you closer into your own relationships. My backyard feels bigger and full of opportunities. I’m closer to myself✌🏽
Crossing borders is part and parcel of life in the Balkans, you do it almost every single day. For the most part things are pretty smooth. You arrive, show your passport, make small talk, and drive on. However this is not the case when you’re crossing a back road border with two Aussies, a Spaniard, an American, a Kosovan with a Macedonian passport, two bikes and two very expensive cameras. The first thing I told the guys when I signed on for the job was back road border crossings are difficult. They didn’t seemed fazed, not that they had a clue what they were in for or what they were doing for that matter.
I wouldn’t say things were going smoothly, but as far as borders were concerned things had been OK. Crossing into Albania? No problems. Kosovo? Too easy... no cash to pay for mandatory State insurance? Just flash our U.S passport and on we’re on our way. So, by the time we hit the border of Macedonia we were getting cocky.
As we approach Macedonia we prepare the car for crossing. Our standard MO is to spread the camera equipment around the entire vehicle, trying to conceal as much of it as we can. Tech equipment usually causes trouble at border inspections and we have a lot of stuff. We then drive up and hand our passports to the Macedonian Customs officer. Five passports, four different nationalities. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the officer wants to conduct a thorough inspection of our vehicle. He checks our luggage and then starts going through our bags. It doesn’t take him long to find our two cameras. He takes the cameras and tells us to wait in the small customs office. After a decent amount of time the officer returns and proceeds to question us on the value of our equipment. I figure, we just tell him the gear isn’t worth much and then he’d let us go. Easy.
I try to signal this plan to Nate and Sami but when asked how much his camera cost, Nate answers “Seven Thousand Dollars”. Seven thousand US dollars is a lot of money in Macedonia, so I translate it as Seven Hundred. Brilliant, we’ll be on our way in no time I think. But, just at that moment, Sami, see’s me motioning 7-0-0 and she thinks I have made a mistake. She jumps in and starts motioning 7-0-0-0. I see the customs guys’ eyes pop. I jump in again and try to explain that she’s wrong and it’s only worth seven hundred but the guy just looks at me with a ‘do you think I’m an idiot’ face. He turns away to consult with his coworkers. We’re fucked!
The officer returns and begins questioning us about our trip and quietly jots our answers down on a sheet of white paper. This can’t be good. The questioning eventually stops, he looks at us again, turns and then goes back to consult with his colleagues. I look across to Sami and Nate, they are starting to get very anxious. In a few minutes he’s back with a stern look on his face and a white piece of paper in his hand. It doesn’t look good for us. He looks us up and down and shoves me the piece of paper. He tells me to pick up the cameras, and, in a gruff voice, to get out of here.
We walk, with a great sense of relief, toward our car when the officer calls...
“Oh, and be very careful...”
We turn back, “Those cameras are expensive, they’re worth $700”. The officer winks and then returns to his office. We turn again and roll off into Macedonia.
Juan Antonio Flecha
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”
This sentiment comes to my mind when I return to the day I visited Bulgaria. I’d ended up in there by way of Greece, and Greece by way of, well, It’s a long story and the details aren’t important, what’s important is that I found my self sitting around a long table, in an old house that appeared as though it was the sum of two smaller houses incorrectly added together with a group of people I’d only formally met that morning.
As I sat there, swapping war stories, a stout, stern man walked in and began ceremoniously ringing a series of what can only be described as ascending cow bells. After a minute, he promptly stopped, left the room and returned a moment later with a large roasted lamb on a platter. I’d been informed by my party this was a feature on his airbnb listing and when in Bulgaria… right?
Our host carved the meat and joined us at the table, although unable to communicate he listened to our conversations and we all feasted on delicious sumptuous lamb. At the end of what was a lovely evening, the gentleman brought out a plastic cola bottle of what we digressed was Rakia a local spirit made with aniseed, plum or quince. He enthusiastically encouraged us to drink up, explaining through a translator that it had been twice distilled because it was still technically poison after the first time and so they saluted and drank. However as someone who doesn’t imbibe often, I politely passed and called it a night, content with the evening.
The light and the dark. Our trip on the bike, off the bike and inside the head. Long stretches of dangerous highway strewn with waste, followed by an inconspicuous left or right and a pristine mountain pass with no cars, a perfect road and stranger waiting at the top. Standing in the shadow of the east leaves its mark mark on you. Its a place that to talk about to try to explain leaves you wishing you’d bit your tongue.
Film directed by: Angus Morton Riders: Lachlan Morton, Angus Morton, Juan Antonio Flecha Photography: Sami Sauri