New Years Eve with crime lords

Tuesday 31 December

I can’t honestly remember the last time I had a decent New Years Eve.  The onus and pressure we put on ourselves to find the best situation possible for ten seconds is astounding.  I think it’s getting worse as we get older, and much like Christmas, it’s really one for the kids.  It was more exciting being allowed to stay awake and have a thimble-full of Babycham.  Every year I try to play it down, yet every year I’m breaking out in a feverish sweat at the prospect of a nightmarish scenario where I’m not hooking up with Jennifer Lawrence on the top deck of a yacht at the stroke of twelve to the visual delight of billions of Euros of fireworks, while Elvis sings us a private rendition of Auld Lang Syne.  I remember one year I was alone in a cellar changing a barrel of beer.  One year I made out with a dude.  One year I walked a girl home and she locked me out and waved at me.   And one year I cried the whole night and smashed my apartment up.  I was on drugs.  For medicinal purposes I assure you.  This year I’m in Belgrade watching Serbia’s most famous pop star and Mafia king-pin play to thousands of crazed fans.  What could possibly go wrong?

Svetlana Ražnatović is something of a household name in these parts.  Going by her stage name Ceca (pronounced Set-Sa, and not the Civil Engineering Contractors Association), in 1993 she traveled to the front to entertain the troops, where she met her career criminal husband and leader of notorious paramilitary forces.  Following his shooting in 2000, she’s had her finger in many pies, including guns, drugs, embezzlement of funds, shady football dealings, and violent criminal behaviour.  She’s managed to buy her way out of lengthy prison sentences with millions of Euros.  Oh and she’s number one ear bleeder…I mean turbo folk singer… in all of Serbia.  Hiding in plain sight, crime clearly pays, and it pays well.

So here we are listening to her screech her way through her back catalogue, with a few minutes until the bells.  The square is rammed to the brim with wild Serbs, singing every word.  We can’t get near the stage to see her and her horrible fake boobs, so we grab some beers and await the countdown.  Which just like last year doesn’t come, and all of a sudden it’s 2014.  We don’t hang around long and dash through the streets wishing as many people Happy New Year as we can in ten seconds.  Nobody wants to give me a hug, people are freaking out, and a finger wagging Serbian man tells me off that this isn’t their custom.  Thank goodness the night picks up at the warehouse club we find ourselves in.

After several beers I’m somehow swinging a cute Slovenian girl around and the room is spinning.  I’ve got another girl following me about trying to lift my kilt with her boyfriend in tow, and I don’t even know my own name.  By the time I make it home, I’ve had one of the best New Years Eves in living memory.  Except for that time I did heroin with those hookers in Dubai.

Happy New Year to you and yours, dearest readers.  I hope this one is filled with peace, love and…scratch that…sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.  You deserve it you cheeky things you.  Here’s to 2014.  Let’s make it a good one.

 

 

 

 

 

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Down in the dumps AKA: miserable bastard

Sunday 29 December

I’m lying in a bed that hasn’t been made.  Literally there isn’t a sheet on it.  (It’s probably my fault).  Someone has just dropped a foul stench from the tiny bathroom which is opposite my head.  Extremely loud Balkan-folk/rock music is blaring in the bar below, so much so if you want a conversation in the room you need to shout.  Some rowdy Slovenes are in and it’s all kicking off.  I’m bed ridden.  I’ve just watched my team lose back-to-back defeats by dodgy ref decisions, and reflecting this, I’m on a mammoth run of  failure at online chess.  I’ve developed a large cold sore on my bottom lip, a couple of mouth ulcers, I’m coughing up a lung and sneezing so violently my eyeballs are coming out the back of my head.  Several people recently have been ignoring me, or letting me down, to the point of where I think it’s one big damn conspiracy.  My netbook charger broke and it’s a small fortune for a new one.  My winter bout of Rosacea is in full swing and I look like a pizza.  To cap all this there is a hostel worker called Tarzan who is like an unstoppable sexual predator.  Do not leave a girl in a room alone with him.  I learnt the hard way.  In short I’m feeling sorry for myself.  When sorrows come, they come not as spies, but in battalions.

It had to happen really.  I was riding the crest of a wave.  Now two days before the end of the year my system decides to shut down and crap things happen.  You can’t win ‘em all.  Oh sure I’m whining about first world problems of course, I know that all too well.  But we all have those days when even the littlest thing can be the straw that broke the Camels back.  As much fun as its been in Belgrade, I am just about ready to move on.  I await the fallout from yet another inevitably disappointing New Year.  I’ll see you on the other side, my cheeky chums – bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready for another adventure!

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Chain wielding taxi drivers, underground Serbian Turbo Folk sing-a-longs and Belgrade at Christmas

Tuesday 24 December

Good heavens above it’s Christmas Eve!  How on Earth did that happen?!  Where have I been?!  Oh yes – in a Christian Orthodox country that doesn’t celebrate anything until January 7th.  So this is a little weird.  Consequently I’ve not heard one carol, not one rendition of Fairy Tale in New York and I’ve not had a mince-pie.  The latter I’m eternally thankful for.  Horrible things.  Every year I was expected to try both those and Brussels sprouts, in case I liked it.  For me the two go hand in hand with Beelzebub.

I digress.  Basically it doesn’t feel like Christmas.  It hasn’t felt like Christmas for a number of years now.  I can’t remember the last time I hung a bauble.  I’ve been thinking that the only chance I’ve got in getting that festive spirit back is when I have a family of my own.  Since I don’t actually want one this could prove something of a problem.  I’ll just borrow yours.

In spite of not actually cheering in the baby Jesus, employing drunk, crap Santas in shopping malls, and drugging girls with mistletoe, Serbians (and Belgrade in particular) will party on regardless.  The night-life here has been wild.  Locals are super friendly, interested in where you’re from, fiercely proud and programmed to have a good time.  My only brush with a seedier side has been when a taxi driver chased me swinging a bike chain after I refused to pay his extortionate fare.  I’ve never been to another country where the taxis will try to rip you off as much as they do here.  Watch out for it.

After one such night out, I find myself in the underbelly of a “Kafana”, a sort of bistro that serves food and booze, often with live music.  This one is more like a speak-easy, with us banging on the door for an age to be allowed in.  It’s 4 am and it’s dead.  Dead except for a Casio Keyboard player and a tall broad with fake boobs and more make-up than a gay Dracula.  The keyboard dude is playing like he’s pressed that ‘demonstration’ button all those instruments have.  You know the one where you used to kid-on that it was you playing that pre-recorded noise?  She is singing…no that’s the wrong verb…she’s wailing some ear-bleeding vocals that even if you spoke the language you wouldn’t understand.  Welcome, dear readers, to Turbo Folk.

I’m struggling to describe this “music”, but, with the utmost respect to Serbians, it is gut-wrenchingly awful.  There doesn’t appear to be a tune, to the point of I wonder if once the song is done it can never be repeated the same way.  It’s got to be up there with Reggaeton and Justin Bieber in unashamedly murdering your ears.  It’s like listening to a Mosque’s call to prayer played over horrible tin-can techno; and they love it.

Half an hour later and the place is jumping.  Old boys sway in the corner, kids are running around.  Groups huddle together and attempt to sing along.  Scores of Cows have died to provide black leather jackets.  It is up there with the most bizarre night life experience I’ve ever had, but when all is said and done; remarkably enjoyable.  They’re an affable bunch these Serbs; even those in the Mafia.

I will do my best to stay out of trouble over the next few days; but I can’t promise anything.  In the meantime, I wish you all peace, love, goodwill and shots of Rakija, Ouzo, Palinka, Tequila and Babycham.  Merry Christmas everyone.

 

 

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Hitchhike to India leg 15: Sarajevo to Belgrade

Tuesday 10 December

I’m awake and up at 5am.  I can’t actually remember the last time I stood at the side of a road and stuck my thumb out; and it’s terrifying me.  I feel I’ve regressed.  A summer of debauchery has fattened my lethargy.  It’s almost like I’m back to square one and I’ve no idea how to do this.  What isn’t going to help is the complications of this particular route.  In spite of being two important capital cities, there is no direct road link or highway between Sarajevo and Belgrade.  It’s all B-roads and backwaters into the middle of nowhere.  The snow is heavy on the ground and rail drizzling, and the wind has whipped up a chill through the bones.  It’s not safe for female hitchers at all, but regardless of not fitting that bracket, I’m still nervous as I hold up my cardboard sign for the first time since May.  My GPS tracker has its reassuring green blink, and my pepper spray is within easy reach in my breast pocket.  Bring it on Bosnia.

After trekking half an hour or so to reach Sarajevo city limits, I’m getting wet.  It’s that kind of subtle fuzzy rain that hangs in the air, knowingly deceptive.  It tricks you into thinking you and your stuff isn’t getting damp, then it sneaks up on you and BAM!  Everything is soaked.  I’m also not sure I’m even on the right road.  Nobody appears to be giving me any clues, and asking a couple of passers-by (“SERBSKA, SERBSKA?!” and jabbing a finger in some direction), isn’t yielding any fruit.  I look up into the hills, shrouded in mist and from where Bosnian Serb forces besieged the city, and I suddenly get the totally irrational fear that I’m a sniper target.  I’m convinced my head is going to get blown off by some crazy with an old rifle taking a pot shot at a tourist nobody would miss.  I’ll take anywhere but here, any driver that comes.  On the hour mark a battered tin can on wheels pulls up.  The cabin thick with smoke, nicotine stained fingers and a dodgy eye beckons me in.  He looks like Worzel Gummidge on crack.  I don’t hesitate and climb in.

He can take me as far as the next turn off.  From here it’s all minor roads, and with several routes into the hills, I’ve got options to try to get across the border.  It’s not going to be easy though, as I’m not sure where I am at any given time.  The little printed google map I’m clutching is invaluable, but due to the scale, it’s not really telling me anything accurate.  Buses zip by with unpronounceable town names adorned in the windshield, but I can’t locate any of them.  It’s total guesswork, until I’m picked up by a nice guy who speaks good English.  It feels a little strange as I enter the Republic of Serbska, as although still in Bosnia, the road signs change to the Cyrillic alphabet, and Serbian flags bluster from street lamps.  Nonetheless, my spirits are high as I’m reassured I’m heading in the right direction.

Little by little I’m edging closer to the border, but I’m still significantly off.  It’s just gone 10 am, and I reckon I’ve come maybe 30 KM in a 300KM journey.  It’s not looking good unless I get a real distance hitch.  An old man pulls in driving a VW Golf from the dark ages that is still going strong.  I wedge myself in, and he drops me at a little town called Sokolac.  I’m marching confidently though looking for a Serbia sign, when my legs go out from under me on the black ice.  The calamity happens while passing a set of traffic lights, with a number of vehicles backed up in both directions, their occupants already watching this strange character with two massive back-packs, a guitar, a board that reads India and a large green foam finger.  I face plant into the snow and mud.  Struggling for ages to get up, like an upside down tortoise, I don’t stop to appreciate everyone doubling over with laughter.

One side of me now looks like it’s covered in turd.  Like someone has used me to clean up a turd.  A long hour goes by with the wind thrashing through, the sun hints at coming out but decides against it, and nobody is biting.  Local hitchers are getting picked up fast, but I’m not so lucky.  The poo stain down my jeans isn’t helping, as nobody wants a traveler covered in shit on their leather seats.  I’m trying to hide that leg behind my pack, but to no avail.  With the weather so poor, it feels like it’s getting dark at midday.  The traffic dies to nothing.  Maybe one vehicle every ten minutes, usually rammed with locals.  Then a bus comes.  A bus that is going to Belgrade.  My arm shakes as I hold up my sign and he pulls in.

“Gratis?” I inquire, to which the driver flatly denies my request.  He’s clearly not affiliated with the laws of hitching.  I look back towards the empty road.  The wind bites my face.  I hesitate.  A decision needs to be made fast.  It is to my eternal shame that I throw my bags in the luggage store and collapse onto the bus.  I’ve failed.  I’m going to have to pay for the rest of the journey.

So dear readers you must forgive me.  It’s not going to be the first time that I have to pay I’m sure, as I’ve heard that nearly all drivers in central Asia will ask for a contribution.  But I still feel I’ve let myself down.  My one saving grace is getting off on a technicality.  A friend gave me a bunch of Serbian money back in Croatia, which just about covers my fare.  So, if we’re splitting hairs, I’ve not actually paid for this trip.  I pass out for pretty much the rest of the lengthy ride.  I certainly wasn’t making Belgrade tonight if I didn’t take this option, and instead of being in a warm bed in a new country and city, my other self would still be standing by a freezing cold road overnight in Bosnia.  Four rides, eleven hours, 296 KM and I finally get a new flag sticker for my guitar.  Come at me Serbia!   But just take it easy I’m fragile.

 

 

 

 

 

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Return to Mostar

Wednesday 04 December

The wind whips into a frenzy as our little band huddles against the elements during a war tour of Mostar.  It is certainly a far cry from the summer time madness back in August when, if you may recall, my friend Mike jumped off the famous bridge here.  The water is a lot higher and significantly colder now, and where once crowds of people stood to watch foolhardy youths plunge to the depths below, now not a sinner stands, the railings empty and streets lined with shut doors.  Bustling street cafes are boarded up, and the only passer-by you’re likely to meet is a stray dog.  And I find it beautiful.

I’ve always had a passion for the forgotten.  The derelict fairground ghost train.  The abandoned warehouse.  The seaside in winter.  There is something so mysteriously captivating about places where people once were, now left to rack and ruin and overrun by nature.  Mostar, while not quite left to rack and ruin,  is slowly struggling to return to its former glory.  But without the tourist dollars and the blazing sun, it’s crumbling remnants of war-torn Bosnia seem all the more palatable.  Perhaps heartrendingly so, it is nonetheless a photographers dream.  A living museum and testament to mans inhumanity to man.

Mostar had a bad time of it.  A war on two fronts.  Double dealings and back-handers saw Bosnian Serbs and Croats lay claim to cutting the country in two here, and the city was caught in the subsequent cross-fire.  It was carnage.  Across a certain section of the city, there isn’t a building that hasn’t been affected.  The problem now is the government is doing little about it.  Many families are residing in bombed out shells, with new builds standing empty – broken promises and dodgy politics.  Mostar has around 50% unemployment, which is staggeringly high, and goes someway to explaining why this region still stands on a knife-edge.  Tensions between ethnic groups are rising, exasperated by no means in part by the destruction of a Bosnian Army war memorial.  This vandalism hit the headlines in March this year, highlighting once again the frail peace in the Balkans.

For me the city had lost none of its charm when I visited in the summer, and it is a must-see if you come to Bosnia.  With common sense prevailing, hopefully we’ll be seeing even more crazy folk throwing themselves off the Stari Most for many years to come.

 

 

 

 

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