When we met Miki at our second hostel in Belgrade and told him we were going to visit Tara National Park, he happily chirped that the park is right near his hometown. “You should visit, you could stay with my family!” A fantastic offer, but we didn’t really expect him to give us another opportunity to take him up on it.
But our last day in Belgrade rolled around, and while we were urgently pounding away at our keyboards trying to actually get some work done (for once), Miki popped his head in the room. “Could you drive me to my town?” He needed to pick up his new ID documents, he said, and then hitch a ride down to Montenegro to visit family. We could stay at his family’s house, and then he would show us around Tara. A good deal for all of us!
We headed south out of Belgrade, zipping through with Mook’s newfound confidence in his Serbian driving skills. Our radio is shit and our car has no aircon, but Miki graciously rejected our apologies for both, instead excitedly describing his passion for “turbo folk” music when a song managed to hiss through the airwaves. He works at a hostel but his real passion is for being a tour guide, he explained, and along the way he pointed out gypsy camps and rumbled out random factoids about the areas we drove through.
On the way we stopped at the scenic town of Valjevo, had a beer, checked out a beautiful little church and took a stroll through the old part of the city. Miki’s mission here was to send his house keys back to his locked-out flatmate in Belgrade. At the coach station he found the driver of the Valjevo-Belgrade bus and gave him the keys and a couple dinars. His flatmate would meet the coach when it arrived in Belgrade and pick up the keys. What an awesome system to ship stuff fast!! Or so I thought. The next day we found out that the driver had given Miki’s keys to the wrong person.
Our drive to Bajina Bašta, the closest Serbian town to Miki’s house, was beautiful and terrifying. As the sun slowly slid down and the sky lit up into magnificent colours, we sped up twisting roads that climbed the mountains higher and higher. Serbia has experienced extremely turbulent storms with catastrophic rains over the past year, and in Valjevo this was apparent in places where you could see where powerful water had carved into the landscape around the rivers, digging up boulders and destroying bridges. Here in the mountains we got another look at the damage done by storms when we started turning into concave bends where half of the road had slid down the cliffside. Eyes wide, I very nearly pissed myself when we drove through a pile of dirt that was there to warn people that, on the other side, there was nothing but a gaping hole.
It was dark when we arrived in Bajina Bašta. We parked our car and dumped our backpacks into a taxi that would drive us across the Serbian-Bosnian border to Miki’s parents’ house. (Normally we could have driven all the way there, but we are still waiting on the necessary insurance green card to enter the country.) At the Serbian border, a stern-faced woman flipped through our passports and then had what appeared to be a heated discussion with Miki and the taxi driver. Foreigners are supposed to register with the police wherever they’re staying in Serbia, and they receive cards that they are then supposed to show at the border. This is normally the job of the hostel or hotel, but in our week or so in the country we hadn’t received any. Her interrogation was lengthy but in the end she waved us through, and Miki said she was simply worried that we’d have problems later on. At the Bosnian border the guard looked at our passports quickly and sent us on our way.
Miki’s parents and his sister greeted us at the door and welcomed us into their living room, where we were presented with a glass of water and a bowl of honey, then domaća kafa (aka Turkish coffee). But his father quickly got down to business, busting out a bottle of homemade rakija. Miki’s parents are into agrotourism, and despite their beginner foreign language skills, love hosting hosting visitors in their modest farmhouse. His father explained through gestures, a bit of Russian, and some translation help from Miki, how they had hosted a Japanese guy through an exchange program who was hesitant at first to partake of the rakija tradition, declining in his polite Japanese way every time the drink was offered. It was a three-month exchange, though, and his resistance couldn’t go on forever. Once he started taking them up on it, both sides found that they were soon speaking the same language, full of joyful man hugging and (probably) belting out Serbian folk tunes.
We escaped with just two glasses of rakija before dinner. The meal was generous to say the least, and we weren’t allowed to leave the table without managing at least half of the roast chicken, potatoes, local cheese and salad they’d spread out. After dinner we hopped in a taxi and went back across the border to check out the Monday night party life of Bajina Bašta (lots of kids milling about on the street, stray dogs, etc.), then another perilous border crossing back into Bosnia where we were force-fed watermelon before bed.
Miki proposed a 7am wake-up the next day, only six hours in the future from where we sat with our watermelon rinds. A bit early, but if that’s the farmer’s life then we were game. With some effort we managed to roll out of bed and into the shower just as planned, but when we rocked down to the living room some 45 minutes later we found Miki snoozing on the sofa. Instead of heading back to bed ourselves, we took the opportunity to check out THE FARM ANIMALS.
Pigs, chickens, and a cow, all of which were way more animated than even the best London city farm. I was in heaven!!
When Miki awoke he so kindly prepared us another massive meal for breakfast. As we peered out the kitchen window into the neighbours’ yard we could see two chubby sheep, happily munching away on a stack of green hay that towered higher than their wooly bodies. “Tomorrow those sheep end their life. The people next door have a new grandchild and there will be a party,” Miki explained. We pondered the transience of life as we also stuffed our faces with more organic produce than anyone should consume before 10am. Then it was off to check out Tara.