‘After this, life will never be the same.’
Have you ever set off on a trip where, as you lounge at the airport and wait for your flight, a very particular thought occurs to you: something exciting and different is about to unfold, and I may never perceive things the same way again.
I’ve had a few instances of this in my life, but one stands out because of the absolute terror that accompanied it as I got on a plane to a small, beautiful Balkan country.
But first, some background on what led to this moment of adrenaline, fear and excitement.
Years ago, while exploring new life as a college student in a foreign country, I decided to pursue my interests in archaeology. I didn’t really study it, so it had nothing to do with my degree, but I’d studied enough ancient history to place it high on my list of things to do. This evolved into something of a hobby.
But that summer evening, the night before my flight for my first dig, I was scouring the internet to find out if I’d made a terrible mistake.
You see, like John Snow, I knew nothing.
I thought ‘I want to go on an excavation,’ which resulted in 19-yo me researching how I could go about doing this with no experience. I came across a website that listed lots of projects so one could get in touch with a team and make their own arrangements. I was poor, so cheap/sponsored ones were all I could afford.
Great, this would do nicely.
I applied to help a small foundation with an excavation in Macedonia. It would last a full month, doing long days of excavation followed by washing and sorting finds. The site appeared large and impressive, and from the heyday of a fascinating period. As a bonus, weekends were for adventures.
I was overjoyed when their acceptance came.
That was it. I booked my flights and continued the chaos of studying and working, not giving it much of a thought apart from buying my kit: a WHS trowel, which is now my best friend (accept no substitute– many others break over time), and some decent clothes and hat for the sun.
A few days before my flight, I finally had some time to do a little research on the foundation, the site, and Macedonia. So, I scoured the internet.
I didn’t find much, only some alarming guides on how to haggle and wrangle taxis at Skopje airport. I needed to drive hours from the capital out to a tiny village.
Bizarre scenarios flashed in my mind, which was usually far more vigilant.
Was this legit? Would I be walking into some white slave trade trap? How could I have been so foolish to book an entire trip to Macedonia without actually preparing for it? Did this foundation even exist? Did I know where the consulate was if I’d need it? Would my mobile phone work?
It was the night before my flight. I had to make the call. Go or stay.
Fears brushed aside, I grabbed my suitcase and headed for the airport. On the flight over, I wondered how this trip would impact my life. What new insight or experience would I gain? This was a true adventure, and I loved adventure. I was strong. I had good street smarts (usually). I could handle myself.
Once I’d stepped off the plane, I found an ATM and withdrew some cash in local currency, saving some sterling I’d brought with me just in case I needed some power currency for a tricky situation (which I did- though it’s not as fascinating a story as it sounds).
I found a middle-aged taxi driver whose face was sharp and angular. Despite worn features, he looked like the type who accepted no nonsense. While he understandably didn’t speak English, and I’d only memorized a few words of Macedonian, I politely–but confidently–attempted an explanation of where I needed to go. It was a very, very small town.
I started what became a bit of a routine- speaking any English with a foreign accent. Masking my identity, much like how my grandmother would speak in different languages when people bothered her on the street during her many travels, pretending not to understand them– ‘Lo siento, no hablo Francés’ or ‘Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish’ despite the fact she interpreted between five languages for the likes of diplomats and heads of state at international conferences. She is the ultimate master traveller.
I wrangled and haggled, just like I’d read, and was soon bundled into a nice-looking silver car. I hid my new trowel in the shoulder bag beside me, in case things ended up different from how they appeared. We set off.
Hopefully he understood where I needed to go and I wouldn’t be plonked in a tiny village with no excavating team waiting for me and no way to get out.
I reached for the seatbelt, only to discover it had been removed from the back seats. Not very comforting as we left the city and careened down the narrow mountain roads and highways. My stomach flipped every time we neared an edge, other cars racing in the opposite direction as we teetered over long drops with no railings to secure the one-lane highways.
If I made it through alive, my partner back home would kill me for being so reckless. Thankfully, that was the first of many chaotic, reckless car trips in other countries– some of which included my partner, all of which included nervous laughter as I wondered whether I’d reach my destination in one piece.
We pulled up to a small hotel outside the village, where another car had also arrived. I heard English and saw large suitcases.
You cannot imagine my relief.
We’d driven through the blip of a town to get to the ‘hotel’ and these people definitely stuck out.
I gave the driver a generous tip for not getting me killed (and for understanding my poor Macedonian), then went to introduce myself to the others. Amusingly, some of them had boarded their flights with similar trepidation. One person nearly didn’t go!
This is long enough, so I won’t go into detail about the dig itself (it was HARD work- but amazing). That can be for other posts. When I tell people I do volunteer archaeology, the most common question I’m asked is ‘how,’ so I wanted to lay out how I stumbled into it. I kept things vague, but if you’d like more specific details or would like to get involved, please do contact me.