Travel. Balkans. Southern Europe.
Riding in Cars With Strangers.
“There are no tickets for tomorrow, miss” — the lady at the bus station told me, not realizing how that would mess up my schedule. “Next day?” — she asked.
No, if I go the next day, I will miss the transfer to the yoga retreat. I need to be at Bajina Basta, in Serbia, tomorrow night. “Really, nothing for tomorrow?” I tried one last time. Nothing.
I bought a ticket for the day after and called the retreat organizer. She told me to get a taxi to the retreat location once I’d arrive at Bajina Basta. “It’s doable, not such a long-distance,” she assured me. Problem solved.
On the morning of that day, I was at Kotor’s bus station very early. I had a 7-hour long journey in front of me that included crossing the border between Montenegro and Serbia. I was eager to get to the retreat: a week full of yoga of meditation was waiting for me in the heart of Tara mountain.
As soon as the bus arrived, I realized this trip was going to be special. I had been traveling in the Balkans for a month, from Zagreb to Split, to Dubrovnik, to Kotor… all touristic places, connected by buses full of backpackers. But this time it was different: I was the only foreigner there. It made sense, I was going to a remote little town in west Serbia, where no tourist ever thinks of going to.
I sat down and the bus started rolling. When you buy a bus ticket in the Balkans, you always get a 2-for-1 deal: you get a way of moving from A to B, and a parade of natural beauty passing by your eyes. Dense greenery, blue lakes, beautiful mountains… they are everywhere and can entertain you even for 7 hours if that’s how long the journey takes.
But soon, I had another source of entertainment. We had arrived at the border and had to give our passports for control. A police officer came onto the bus, collected everyone’s passports, and left. About 10 minutes later, he came back and started distributing them: “Miroslav,” “Goran,” “Jelena”, he shouted, scouting the bus for an arm that would raise at the mention of their name. “Portugal,” he shouted. I raised my arm, I was now baptized with the name of my country.
That drew attention to me, and another passenger stroke up a conversation. In Serbian. The only words I knew were pivo, voda and hvala — beer, water, thank you — not much of a help for casual chitchat. So, we resorted to the most basic form of communication: gestures. That’s how I learned he was called Radovan but everyone called him Rambo. It was easy for him to “tell” me this, he just had to point at the huge Rambo tattoo on his forearm.
When we stopped for lunch, we connected to the wifi of the roadside cafe and embraced a more modern way of communication: Google Translator.
This allowed us to get to know each other better. He told me he was Serbian but had been living in Montenegro for 10 years, and this was the first time in all those years, that he was visiting home! I couldn’t believe it! Maybe Google messed up the translation. Or maybe my brain is just too privileged to accept that, in some corners of the world, there are people who don’t visit their hometown for 10 years because they simply can’t. We’ll never know.
From the Bus to a Taxi… Up the Mountain, into the Woods
We hit the road again and, a few hours later, we arrived at Bajina Basta. I smiled at Rambo, waved goodbye, and got off the bus. I looked around: there was a tiny bus station, with a cafe and a toilet. There was also the taxi area, with exactly one taxi. I was happy to see the driver was a young lady, it made me feel safer.
I approached her, she didn’t speak English. I showed her the name of the place I wanted to go to, Predov Krst. Then I tried to get into the taxi but she didn’t let me and made a sign to wait. I waited but had no idea what for. After a while, I tried to get into the taxi again, the same reaction from her. I started to wonder if I was just wasting my time there. But a few minutes later, a guy in his 50s arrived and talked to the girl. She finally told me to get into the taxi, I obeyed.
The guy sat at the driver’s seat and started the engine. He also didn’t speak English but said: “Predov Krst.” I repeated back, “Predov Krst.” We started rolling up the mountain. On our right side, there was a beautiful blue river. He pointed at it and said, “Serbia — Drina — Bosnia.” The Drina River is the natural border between Serbia and Bosnia in that area. He repeated it a few times, I smiled, he smiled back. We tried to have a basic conversation but mostly rode in silence through the middle of nowhere, up a mystical mountain, heading to Predov Krst. Wherever that was…
The drive started to seem too long. Was this guy taking me into the woods to rip me off, abuse me, kill me? These things go through your mind when you are a woman traveling alone. But what could I do at that point? Get off the taxi and be stranded alone on a mountain road? We kept going.
After about 30 minutes, the car halted in the middle of the road. He got out, and I thought my time had come, he was going to kill me. That’s when I noticed a spring of water on the side of the road, where he was headed with an empty plastic bottle. He was back at the wheel 2 minutes later, with a full bottle and a smile.
A little later, after 45 minutes of driving up the mountain, we arrived at a place with three houses. Next to one of them, I saw a group of people. I got out of the taxi and asked, “Is this the yoga retreat place?” For the first time that day, somebody replied back in English: “Yes.”
I had made it. I went back to the taxi and showed a thumbs up to the driver. “Hvala,” I said, as I picked up my bags from the trunk. He smiled and drove away.
He left without knowing that I would keep him in my mind forever, as one of the craziest adventures of my backpacking days, and as a reminder of faith in humanity. This story could have gone terribly wrong. But it didn’t because, even though we tend to fear the worst, the reality is often a lot brighter than we think. Most times, when you take a risk, the world throws back at you a great adventure and a cool story to tell.