The Balkans

I am ready to hit the road again after spending a full week resting in western Serbia. I needed time to make sense of the things I’ve seen in the Balkans, to line them up in my head before I commit them to words.

I don’t think I’m any closer, but for the sake of folks who read this, I’ll try to say something.

Turquoise lake and green mountains as seen on bicycle tour of Bosnia.

Bosnian mountains

Bosnia was nothing like I expected, though I wonder now what it was I thought I’d find.

In the north I cycled past fields of golden straw, watching hunched farmers shape the land with nothing more than pitchforks and shovels.

At dusk they loaded themselves into horse-drawn wagons and clopped down the highway to old stone houses. They always smiled, always waved, and after they’d gone I wondered just what it is we’re growing in our rows of mechanized perfection back home.

The heat didn’t burn but choke as I approached Sarajevo. In two-street villages I began to find memorials for dozens, all killed the same way, the same day. It was nothing like the markers I saw in Belgium and France. I couldn’t walk away from these. For the first time in my life I shared the dates on the stones, and it hurt to swallow.

Sarajevo city centre as seen on bicycle tour of Bosnia.

Sarajevo’s city centre

Sarajevo. The Bosnian capital lies in a valley, guarded by towering green mountains that seem to keep the outside world at bay. There you find mosques, synagogues and cathedrals erected almost side-by-side, and yet the only tension on the ground is between tourists jostling for a photograph. Sun or stars, the streets were all the same – clean, quiet and safe.

It was inspiring, but I don’t pretend to understand it. How can the best in us survive amid the poison of recent history? Where do people find the will to grow, to rise up and deliver themselves to something better?

Maybe there is no answer. That these things are happening is enough for me.

Climbing east to Serbia was brutal under the blazing summer sun. For a week the temperature hovered around 40°C, and I had to drink six or seven litres of water each day just to stay on my feet. Even then it was tough. At the top of one mountain pass I was doubled over my bike, shaking and trying not to retch. From then on I biked only in the morning and evening, letting the heat of the day pass while I lounged in the shade.

Crossing bridge over the Drina River near Višegrad on a biycle tour of Bosnia.

Crossing the Drina River in Višegrad

After getting my passport stamped at the border, I made for Užice, where I hoped to find a bicycle shop to fix my wobbling rear tire.

In my search I met a teenage boy who asked in broken English where I was going and what I was doing in Serbia. He grinned and disappeared with my answers. Thinking nothing of it, I returned to my bike, stuffing its panniers with supplies.

When I turned to leave, I stopped short and gaped. There, standing before me, was a group of 20 or more kids, all staring at my bike as though it had come from the moon. They wanted to see everything, touch everything, and again and again they asked if I’d really cycled all the way from Canada. We took photographs. One boy proudly wrote “Serbia” in Cyrillic on my waterproof bag.  And when I said after 45 minutes that I had to leave, a kid reached into his pocket and gave me two bent cigarettes.

I sometimes think it’s stupid when people make a fuss over my trip. Not this time.

Cabin and house boat on mountain lake as seen on bicycle tour of Serbia.

Mountain lake in Serbia

Those kids knew, and I soon realized, that they will probably never get a chance to do something like this. Most Serbians don’t have a lot, and they have to work themselves raw to even get that much. The truth is that they can’t see the world.

I don’t pity them. The shame is us. So many Canadians have the freedom to spin the globe, to visit any spot we wish. On a few month’s wages we can see the pyramids, the rain forest, the most modern cities in the world. We have the opportunity, every single day, to meet new people and learn from them as they learn from us. But too often we don’t.

Instead we get diplomas, go to work and pay our bills, nagged by a vague sensation that something is missing from our world. Something is missing.



7 responses to “The Balkans

  1. i’ve read a lot of travel writing, mike, but rarely anything as raw and truthful as this. thank you for not trying to understand. for looking into yourself instead of down at others. for reminding us to pay attention. and for challenging us to be more present in our own lives.

    rock (or roll, rather) on.


  2. Mike – after being mesmerized by all your photos, and all the wonderful places you’ve been, while imaging all the great places you’re gonna go, I finally sat down to read a bit of your blog. this one resonated with me the most as we all need that reminder of how big our world could be if we just take a step back and let it! I’m gonna try to remind myself to step out of that safe box I’ve created such as you have!

  3. The bridge on the Drina River in Visegrad is a huge historical place!
    Novelist, Ivo Andric wrote about the history and terrible things that happened on that very bridge you crossed.
    He received the Nobel Prize for his literary work but mainly for this novel in 1961.
    The name of the novel is “The Bridge on the Drina.”
    It is available in English language and could be found in most bigger libraries across the globe.
    Main Library in Regina has the copy as well.

    This amazing journey of yours is bigger than an average person can even imagine or understand! Wish you all the luck in the universe! May strength and courage stay along your side until you complete this journey.

    Ljiljana Jovanovic, Regina, SK.

  4. Mike, I came across your blog some days ago and I liked it so much that I decided to read it since the beginning. Every day I read a few of your past entries, but I must say this one was so insightful, so beautiful! Keep on going, Mike. We’ll keep on reading.

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