Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Putting away the maps in Ohrid, Macedonia

If you want to see Ohrid before the crowds of elderly tourists come shuffling through, get up when the housewives are still drinking their first cups of coffee and the fishermen are still sitting quietly in their chairs on the sturdy stone docks. Maybe you're imagining dawn, or the early rays of sunshine - but we're in the Balkans, so I'm talking about 8 am. The world is still sleeping, the tourists haven't left their guest houses yet, the children aren't even at school yet, and the world is peaceful.

And while you're at it, leave the guide books and the maps and the seven must see lists at home. Sometimes you need to just wander, or you'll only ever find the places that everyone else has found.

With no destination in mind, I set my course for up. Up narrow cobbled paths, with creamy three story buildings framed in dark painted wood leaning in from both sides. Up broad stone stairs, made to ease the hikes of the tottering, compression-socked crowds, to the level of balconies where yesterday's laundry and beautiful scarlet peppers hang in the low morning sun to dry. Past the red tiled roofs, up through a wooded park to the level of Gorna Porta, the old wooden door in the thick stone wall, solid defenses from a time forgotten everywhere but here, this region where our 200 year history is but the blink of an eye.

Up past the castle of Samuil, a man who was also a king, whether of accomplishments magnificent or despotic or unworthy of such a label, I couldn't tell you. I see him only in what he built, still standing 12 centuries later and evoking wonder and feelings of invincibility from those who climb up to its ramparts. That wonder is somewhat diminished by the souvenir tables the friendly hawkers are just setting up out front. I muse idly if the architecture students haven't figured something out that I haven't, striving to build and in this way to leave their mark on history.

I've reached the peak, and cannot climb any higher, so I enter the woods of Palosçik and start to wander. I don't follow the way to Kaneo, though I intend to end up there, because I have already taken that direct path. Instead I turn off the stone path to gravel, off the gravel to pine needles and dirt. I revel in the tranquility, shared only with birds and one black squirrel.

What do we search for when we travel? Do we look for others who are like us or different? Do we look for some magic escape or for a chance to be someone else that we don't find in our own homes? Do we look for a life that feels more "real"? Do we look for places where God still exists? Do we look for history, or for peace?  I wish I knew the answer for myself, because if I knew what I was looking for then I might stand a chance of finding it. But as it is, I am just wandering and enjoying.

 Descending through the deep green pines and dappled sunlight, I see something that might be mistaken for a path, dropping down uncomfortably steeply. Naturally, I take it. I think, it might be safer to run than to try to go slowly - but I don't indulge that illogical impulse. One foot in front of the other, breathing in the smell of Christmas trees, listening to the fledgling birds still screaming for breakfast. Startling a tortoise back into his grayish brownish shell, I pass through some ivy and back onto a real, gray gravel path - and in front of me, through some golden grasses hinting of approaching Autumn, the cliff drops to the azure and turquoise beauty of Lake Ohrid. No tourists, no sunbathers, just seagulls and loons and placid waters stretching away to the far distant shore. Nothing can capture the color of those waters, not a camera and not paints. The water is so clear that I can watch a sleek black bird dive right to the bottom on its fish chase then bob back up without losing sight of it once.

I climb all the way down to the rocky shore to wash my face in the water, and I have a vague impression that I am performing some type of ritual ablution, though I can't explain this feeling to myself any more than I can to you. Soon I will hike back up, admire the church and peer down into the waters at Kaneo with no one but the caretaker for distraction, climb back up past the cascading red tile roofs. Soon I will again pass through the Upper Gate, dodging my way through no fewer than three tour groups with eyes for nothing but their own feet. But for this moment, I will stand on the gray stone shores of this giant, deep lake and I will absorb as much of its tranquility as I can contain in this fragile and ephemeral skin. 

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