Published: November 13th 2011
April 9th 2010
Brennan at the magic fountain
These waters are said to have magical,healing qualities.
When Bosnians really like you, they whack you with their cane
Since I had 10 Bosnian marks that I needed to spend, I decided to buy fuel. I stopped in the town of Foca http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fo%C4%8Da
(40,000 people) to do so. But I couldn’t find a fuel station in Foca. I drove around and around, up and down looking everywhere, but I couldn’t find it; I knew it had to be there.
I started heading down the highway, but stopped to check my map. While I was looking at the map, an old man who spoke no English snuck up behind me and slapped his hand on my shoulder. I was about to go on the defensive and tackle him when I saw he was trying to help me orient myself. This geezer, who spoke no English, spent about three minutes mumbling to me in toothless Bosnian and affectionately whacking me with his cane.
Later, some women gave me horrible directions (also in Bosnian), but eventually they led me to the station. There, the attendants confirmed, in moderate English, that the road I had been on was absolutely awful (duh!) and that I should drive about 20km out of the way
to Gorazde http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorazde
(30,000 people) to take a “better” road.
Buffoons at the crossing
When I finally arrived at the Montenegrin border crossing, I had the luxury of an incompetent guard who mistook the British license on my Vespa as a Californian plate.
Under normal circumstances, an American would be required to purchase special insurance “green card” for driving a British bike in Montenegro (about €25), but when the supervisor inquired about my plates as I was driving off, he assured his boss that the bike was registered in California. I had given the guard the registration papers, which clearly indicated “United Kingdom,” but apparently to Bosnians, sometimes looking at Phoenician letters is equivalent to us to look at Syrillic letters.
Another rocky, freezing 25 miles later, and I was across this section of the Dinaric Alps and entering Pljevlja http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pljevlja
(3rd largest city in Montenegro – Crna Gora) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montenegro
My ancestral village of Pljevilja
I followed the signs toward the city “centar”, passing a small hotel on my way to the population center. I found a market, and asked some children if there was to visitor’s center. They directed me to the hotel, as it was my
My ancestors have been worshiping here for 500 years.
best chance to get useful information.
The bartender opened it for me and showed me inside the hotel. This strong man in his 30’s said he had a room for me, and it would be €15 for the night. I explained that I was an American journalist looking for my distant family, and immediately I became the entertainment subject for the whole bar. A small table in the bar set to work immediately on the task of locating my family. The ancestral name I had was Besic, dating back to the late 19th century. In this town of 21,000, they were confident that there were no Besic’s in the town – but there were Basic’s.
Five minutes later their friend named “Basic” had walked in and introduced himself. Five minutes after that, their friends who spoke English arrived. Ten minutes after that, I was riding in a new Audi and we were on our way to have dinner together in the restaurant managed by one of the men at the table.
Today’s new friends
The restaurant, Cevabdzinica Trebovina, was fantastic. While we ate, we watched an unceasing stream of Balkan pop videos on television, and chatted about god-knows-what.
I made a pocket sandwich out of the Cevapi, which is the local treat of sausage and lettuce, drinking a Nisicko Pivo – the national beer. It was damn good stuff and they filled me to the brim, which was exactly what I needed.
Ervin and Irman are the English speakers; they made me feel as comfortable as possible, telling me that I had arrived in one of the cities with the best hearts in all of the world. After all I’ve seen, I do believe them. Tomorrow, my friend Kalajd said, he would help me get my brakes fixed, and take me to the Islamic center (Basic is a Muslim name in Pljevilja) to try and find my relatives.
I took a shower that night in my room, with the flimsiest and most complicated shower fixture I have seen. A thin plastic sarcophagus, rounded in a failed attempt at elegance. The cheap plastic doors barely slide open, and inside there is an electronic panel inviting you to either turn on a light or a fan. There are options to either use the wand or else the wall-jets. The knobs for this selection, as well as the temperature selection, fail
miserably. Plastic knobs that won’t turn the way you suggest, filling you with the cold rage and tempting you to rip them off the fucking wall. The whole shower is so flimsy you want to “hulk up” and break out of the whole damn thing. With supernatural grace, I managed to do neither of these things.
But the highlight of my visit was attending the mosque here in Pljevlja, being blown away by it, and then being given a few minutes to point myself toward Mecca and pray all over the floor. I had no idea what I was doing, but I did my best Muslim impersonation and gave up my soul to whatever God cared to listen. What made the feeling so exceptional was the knowledge that my family had been praying at that same mosque for five centuries.
How I got there
I’d left Sarajevo early enough to give me enough time to struggle through terrible 2nd world roads with an expectation of getting lost. It happened straight even earlier than I had gambled, when there was no left turn sign indicating the direction of the city of “Foca.” As a result, I ended up circumnavigating Sarajevo’s airport
on old country roads.
I eventually made it on south, climbing up some significant mountains until scraps of snow shouldered the highway and my hands felt their old, familiar stinging from the cold.
This was really freaking scary
It was as I entered a long, dark tunnel without any artificial lighting and I tried to slow my bike down that I noticed my primary brake had quit functioning. I actually went into shock, in premature anticipation of certain injury or death in the utter blackness of it all before I was able to bring the bike under control with my rear brake. I’d honestly thought I might be at the end.
Just beyond the tunnel, police were waiting for speeders in an area with an artificially low speed limit; they thought they’d caught one and pulled me over. As soon as they saw my English plate and anticipated the upcoming anger and confusion from a language barrier, they just motioned for me to go on my way.
When the road eventually split, I headed off toward the national forest for a short detour - before deciding that a rainforest was not the place for a Vespa and turned back toward
Montenegro. I’d ridden about 10 miles, before stopping to peer over a ledge at an enormous valley. The sheer massiveness of it all forced me to stop and take it in. I heard a bell ringing, and looked off to my left, where an old Bosnian shepherd woman with a stick was leading her two beautiful cows and a flock of sheep across the road. It was such a real
Searching for my ancestors
My friend Kalajd, who speaks the best English in town, led me and another friend to the city records office, where the clerks there dug through these loosely bound ancient record books, searching for my ancestors. They poured through every record book, until they literally didn’t have a ladder high enough to reach any more. At that point, Kalajd came around the counter to climb up on top of the furniture to reach the furthest back books, and still we couldn’t find the account of my “Basic” ancestors.
These weren’t just books – they were museum pieces. The dust on their jackets was nearly ¼ inch deep, and they dated beyond the first world war. I was appalled that they were still in use and
the information had yet to be computerized before they were eaten by moths.
Kalajd was disappointed, but I told him that I hadn’t expected to find the information in the first place, and that being here in Pljevlja, making new friends and seeing how people live here was thrilling enough for me.
Monastery of the Holy Trinity
Up at the Orthodox Monastery I was given a brief tour and took some pictures. The scent of the church is unmistakable and stabilizing. I bought a candle, and placed it to burn in the special icon house of light.
Because all orthodox monasteries provide free accommodations to visitors, we went to try and arrange my accommodations there. The head priest, called “Egoman” revealed that it would not be possible due to the poor conditions of the rooms. I offered to clean several of the rooms for them if they allowed me to stay, but he seemed set against it. Instead, I moved from my €15 room to another room across town, which was only €10. The first innkeeper saw me leaving and appealed for me to return another time – “and bring girls!” he urged.
Tomorrow night I plan to stay
at another Monastery, this time perched on a mountain south of Niksic, the second largest city in the country.
As I prepared to leave my friends and this city behind, a brown and black mutt at the main intersection of Pljevlja started barking without provocation – barking at no one and everyone in particular – in a dramatic and pathetic display. It feverishly wagged its tail while it growled in pointless confusion. I wondered if the dog was mad, or else sensed something none of us could understand – and I sped off out of town in the wrong direction.
I’ve got a good buzz going on.
I was just taken for a ride and spoiled by a gang of new friends. It was completely miraculous, but hardly surprising anymore – given the pattern of life I’m grown accustomed to.
I prayed in my family’s mosque today. It was a day that I began expecting nothing and was delighted with the possibilities suggested by my new friends, which settled into a mildly amusing and standard day. One thing that has transpired is the elevation from “a slight desire to sell my Vespa in Podgorica” to “must
sell that Vespa, or else!”
My friend Irman helped me find two different mechanics who would try to fix my front brake on the bike, but even after I helped the mechanic determine that the problem was a ruptured hydraulic hose, we were unable to have it replaced in this tiny town. That would have to wait until tomorrow in Niksic.
This country clearly wants to join the EU. The license plates are made with space for the EU logo clearly primed, and the (un)official national currency is the Euro.
There are more photos below