Years ago, just days before Kosovo “broke away” from Serbia, #North Macedonia was called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYR Macedonia). In fact the name change is just a recent thing! At this time though, visas were required for Australians to enter Macedonia. They were paid for in US Dollars. It was my first euro trip. I was inexperienced. A little forgivable mistake could have ended bad for me.
We never really planned to go to Macedonia to be honest. At the time, the vibes from Serbia’s exit music festival (and beer) were still running through our veins. I was a little pumped from just being in Europe. I remember making a few interesting decisions on the trip – like getting this random metal spike earring put through my ear in a Belgrade piercing and tattoo parlor. Luckily I didn’t end up with anything else. It was a great summer too. Hot. Plenty of festivals. Things took a turn when a Macedonian-Australian whom we’d never met – off the internet, invited us to Macedonia. So off we went and why not!? – It’s Europe.
We traveled many hours by bus and train. Not the most comfortable journey. We’d paid for our FYR Macedonian visas with US Dollars at the border. These things were right out of the Soviet-Bloc era. All in Cyrillic (Russian Alphabet) and we could barely make out that they were valid for 1 month.
Our impromptu trip from Serbia to Macedonia to meet this “Jana chick” suddenly ended fruitlessly. Jana was a no-show in Skopje. To be honest the city looked pretty boring anyway. Sorry. It was true. What were we going to do in Macedonia with these 1 month visas? After strolling around Skopje for a night and a day we decided we were sick of everything Soviet-Bloc so we bailed to Greece.
I knew all of the Balkan countries basically hated each other (at institutional levels) but I didn’t realise that hatred and lack of co-operation even spilled across to simple matters of life like currency exchanges. Nobody wanted either neighbour’s dirty money. When I entered Macedonia I was stuck with a massive fist full of Serbian Dinar. What a waste! Macedonia wouldn’t exchange it for dirt. Nobody wanted it. Serbian Dinar? Croatian Kuna? Macedonia Denar? Nope none of it. Government officers just wanted US Dollars and hotels occasionally wanted Euros. Having learnt my lesson I cashed out all my worthless Macedonian Denar at some Soviet-Bloc hole-in-the-wall kiosk at Skopje Central Station. I piled up the nasty cigarettes into my backpack. Enough to last me the entire trip of Europe.
The train out of Macedonia and into Greece was pretty smooth running. Too smooth in fact. I thought nothing of it at the time. We went straight past customs and migration officials without as much as a blink of an eye. Greece gave us the typical free 90 days Schengen visa. A Thessaloniki-Athens-Greek Island adventure began and for a little while at least everything was rosy. Eventually I wanted to return to Serbia, partly to use up all that crappy Serbian Dinar and because I loved Serbia. I headed back alone, through Macedonia.
Re-Entering Macedonia this time was more smooth-sailing. I presented my Soviet-Bloc visa in my passport to the border officials and was through. Jana resurfaced with a believable story about whooping cough and hospitalisation. She’d recovered and offered me a place to stay for about a week. It was an amazing experience. I discovered Macedonia was all about Lake Ohrid (not Skopje).
After our trip together I became really sick with whooping cough. I was alone and I thought I was going to cough to death in a Macedonian hotel bathtub. It was very bad. It ended up lasting months. Being alone, sick and unable to speak the local language in a foreign country is a pretty sad experience. Offer any and every assistance if you ever hear of a traveler in this situation… It was probably for the best that during that dark moment, while laying sick in a bathtub coughing my ribs to breaking point, I did not yet know I was in FYR Macedonia illegally. Remember that Soviet-Bloc era Cyrillic visa? Well, turns out it was a single entry visa only. The border officials hadn’t noticed my visa was already stamped from my departure to Greece and since then it was invalid. I’d discover all of that very soon.
Somehow I made my way out of the Hotel to the train station and boarded my train from Skopje back to Serbia. I have no idea how I got there. I remember being so ill. The train carriage was quiet and I tried to use the journey to rest up before another Serbian journey. To pass time I wondered if I had caught the bird-flu or SARs. I wondered which country I might die in. Eventually, the last hurdle came – the Macedonian border officials just before Serbia. The carriage door slid open. “Passports!” yelled the border official. Slouched and unconcerned I handed by passport over and just glared into the nearby distance of Serbia. I was about to have a border-crossing experience I’d never forget.
Angrily and quickly the border officials gathered around me and the questioning began. I spoke a little Serbian but not nearly enough to negotiate. I understood my visa was invalid with the phrase “nema visa?”. Yep. I had entered Macedonia without a visa and so I was technically illegal! I was half fearing things were going to escalate when one of the border officials pulled me by that Belgrade earring towards the train doors. The other half of my mind at the time was hoping I’d be locked up so I could just lay down and rest. I was patted down for cash but all that turned up was a pile of crappy Macedonian cigarettes and a fist full of Serbian Dinar which looked sicker than I was. Of course I couldn’t pay by bankcard either. Just US Dollars. Of course. Of course, just US Dollars… Because that’s what Australians take to Europe. US Dollars!
By now I was actually off the train, standing beside it. I was told to wait. The border officials didn’t seem to know what to do with me really. They disappeared for some time. The elderly Serbian wife of my fellow cabin travelers passed my backpack to me out of the train’s window. Just in case I’d be locked up I’d have my backpack with me. Nice… That polite gesture made the situation feel all the more eery when the train began to slowly move. I looked around, no border officials were anywhere to be seen so I just jumped back on the moving train and hide out of sight. My heart raced until we entered the Serbian border just a couple of minutes later. The moment I realised I was safe in Serbia I rejoined my cabin – much to the surprise of the elderly couple there.
The atmosphere was now not so quiet. “Nema visa!” the elderly Serbs cheered and laughed knowing it was over. Out came a flask and a shot of Rakija to celebrate my survival. That man’s face was extremely happy. He seemed rather impressed with my cheeky situation. We couldn’t understand each other but probably, he was remembering a few adventures of his own.
Moral of the story? When traveling always pay careful attention to your visa as well as entry and exit requirements. Many visas specify both the duration and the amount of entries allowed. Usually it’s a single entry visa only unless specified otherwise.