A Travellerspoint blog

The most amazing thing

The DRAFT!!!

I had never heard of the (fairly) ubiquitous European fear of air drafts until I came to Serbia on this trip. This time, due to the fact that I'm living with a group of locals, I'm experiencing all sorts of culturally normal things that the average tourist would never witness. Just now Kristina came out of the bathroom after taking a shower and said "can you please close the window? There's a draft!" I agreed if she was willing to leave the window in the other room open. THEN she proceeded to light up a cigarette in the room that I was in. I immediately told her that there was no way in hell that I'd keep the window closed if she was going to smoke inside. She was worried about "the draft" and her wet hair - thinking that it was going to give her a stiff neck.

While in Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina we were given a bottle of wine to deliver to the hostel in Nis, Serbia. While at the hostel we met Vladmir ("Like Putin" as he is apt to say) who was the first to tell me of the Serbian "fear of the draft". While in Dubrovnik I recalled Maja yelling at me for allowing a breeze to cool me off saying something about me getting sick but I casually disregarded her. Anyway, according to Vladmir there are some that claim that various Serbian royalty have been killed off by the draft.

So, back in Belgrade. After taunting Kristina for her weird fears I finally found a site that explains it all. PLEASE read this because to an American it should be absolutely hilariously weird: http://german-way.com/blog/2009/02/13/german-phobia-killer-draft/

Posted by DavidJFabe 18:39 Tagged health_and_medicine Comments (0)

Quick commentary on Belgrade


sunny 27 °C

Today Mateja and I met up with one of his university friends and one of her friends. We walked around the city, got bitten by a ton of mosquitoes and sat at another one of the boat cafes. The weather was fantastic. Last night it poured rain but today was sunny and warm without being stiflingly hot.

I was impressed by the significant changes Belgrade has experienced since I was here in 2005 (I spent one night here in 2006 but it doesn't count because I was a. ridiculously jet-lagged and b. I went straight from the airport to Mateja's apartment south of the old town). Evidence of investment in infrastructure and city beautification abounds. Much of the old town looks like any other major European city (though there are very few buildings that one would describe as groundbreakingly-beautiful). Serbia's GDP per capita has grown by about 40% since 2005 as well - a very good sign for their economy.

Unfortunately, most investment is happening in Belgrade and Vojvodina. The south's infrastructure is somewhat atrophied. However, there's a ton of potential down there so hopefully somebody will get it together.

Tomorrow morning we're setting off for Vojvodina. It's a region that I've now passed through twice without stopping off. We're staying with a girl who works with ISIC (the international student organization) who lives in Subotica (Su-bo-tee-tsa). Apparently Subotica is a very attractive small town and has a bunch of Art Nuveau architecture. Then, in the morning we're heading to Novi Sad. It also apparently has a bunch of cool architecture. When we get back to Belgrade I'm going to attempt to make Mexican food for Mateja and Kristina (and maybe Mateja's mom if she's in Belgrade but she might be in Eastern Serbia working on some economic development project...).

I might not check in for a day or two. Just letting you know.

Posted by DavidJFabe 15:13 Archived in Serbia Comments (0)

Checking in from Beograd

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Made it to Beograd tonight. It's a little bit cooler here in the city than it was in Nis last night. However, it's more humid so... yeah. Mateja's flat in Beograd is on the top floor of a tall apartment building so it gets scorching hot during the day - at least from everything that I've heard from Mateja, his brother and their mother.

Today we went to the Nis flea market - many people were there selling items that hold no value whatsoever and are basically just candidates for recycling. The scale of poverty in southern Serbia is more well understood from that vantage point. Hopefully somebody will invest something in the local economy.

Before lunch I stopped by a cafe with Mateja, Andreja and Andreja's friend for some espresso. While there some 40-something Serb at the next table overheard me and mentioned that his brother lives in San Diego. He continued on saying that every American is at least 20% Serb, the Potomac (River) is a Serb word and numerous other ridiculous claims. When Mateja laughed he said "Well, you might not believe me but it's printed in a very good source: The Third Eye". The Third Eye is a tabloid similar to the Weekly World News. Completely ridiculous.

Posted by DavidJFabe 13:19 Archived in Serbia Comments (1)

Investing in Serbia

sunny 35 °C

For the past five days I've been giving a lot of thought to the problems facing Serbia as time marches forward. Primarily I tend to view political and social ills as best solved through economic means. However, Serbia isn't producing many competitive products and European integration, right now, might destroy the domestic economy (at least according to my contacts here). Much foreign investment seems to be committed via fairly neoliberal methods - invest only as much as it necessary to extract primary goods from an economy and leave as little of the profit behind as possible. What Serbia needs is solid investment in it's domestic economy, specifically small businesses. Despite the fact that the government of Serbia is considerably less corrupt than it was just a few short years ago there is no disputing the fact that there are serious barriers to entry into the economy, likely due to corrupt dealings between politicians and tycoons. I'd like to see low interest loans offered to small businesses here, or perhaps business partnerships set up between foreign investors and local business people that would see the bulk of the profits derived from the business dealings stay in Serbia. Had I the investment capital I think I could make a nice living for myself while helping sectors of the Serbian economy move forward in ways that they currently are not.

Just my two cents...

In other news: It's hot hot hot here. Strange that a week ago I had to wear a sweatshirt outside and now I almost can't go outside lest I begin to melt. We've been spending the bulk of the day indoors, usually only venturing out into the city after 5pm.

Last night was a lot of fun. We caught a few drinks with some of Mateja's friends - Dusan (Dushan) and Darko. Darko is a low-level official for the pro-Europe center-left Serbian Democratic party, the current ruling party of Serbia and the party of Boris Tadic. Mateja and I have a more distinctly left-wing perspective so it was interesting to get the take of a member of the Democratic party on the development of Serbia. One nice thing is that the right wing Radical Party imploded following the last elections and now the leading right-wing party in Serbia is a center-right pro-European integration party. Serbia seems to have officially left behind it's history of isolationism and embraced democracy. It's a very impressive fact.

After that we bought some beer and headed down to the banks of the Nisava (Nis river) with a few of Milos's English-student friends. I engaged in a very interesting debate with one of the students. He repeated the line I've heard many times before: Yugoslavia was an "unnatural state" in which "people who never wanted to live with one-another were forced to".

I have a hard time swallowing that take on Yugoslav history. One thing to note is that during World War 2 it was the communist and multi-ethnic Partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito, who beat back the Nazis, Croatian fascist Ustashe and Serbian pro-monarchist Chetniks, among other groups. The partisans attracted people of all Yugoslav nations in full knowledge that they were working to establish Yugoslavia. This was in the face of the fact that the allies initially supported Chetniks and the Nazis supported the Ustashe. Who, then, appears to have garnered the largest amount of public support during the war? The partisans.

In addition to that fact most of the resistance movements started by Croatians and Slovenes living under Austro-Hungarian rule and Serbs and Macedonians living under Ottoman rule were created with the explicit goal of uniting the south Slavic people.

Also, Ante Markovic, a professed Yugoslav and pro-unionist, was the most popular politician in 1980's Yugoslavia. Milosevic used dirty tricks to destroy Markovic's political future. Milosevic did not, in general, enjoy popular support. It's also worth mentioning that Serbia had an ~80% military desertion rate during the 1990's (and in larger cities that rate was closer to 95%) which tends to suggest that there was not popular support for the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, nobody had the political capital to resist Milosevic and his cronies and Yugoslavia became the victim of shock-capitalism and warfare. Serbia lost more than a decade of potential economic growth. Had Yugoslavia remained a unified state they would have walked straight into the European Union, been on the Euro by now and been one of the largest voting blocks in Europe. As it stands now they are a fractured group of small states with economies still trying to figure out how to catch up with much of the rest of Europe. Such a different story from the post-WW2 era Yugoslavia which experienced the fastest rate of industrialization and economic growth in the world. It's a very unfortunate story.

Posted by DavidJFabe 08:02 Archived in Serbia Comments (0)

Poverty in the Balkans

Roma and grinding poverty.

sunny 34 °C

I'm at a cafe and just saw something very sad - a small Roma boy, probably not more than 3 years of age, was sent by his mother to beg at our table. Poverty is a very serious issue among this long-underpresentented people. It's heartening to know that Serbia has taken significant steps to integrate these people but to see a group so far-removed from the social mainstream to feel they have to resort to sending their 3-year-old to ask for handouts is depressing.

Posted by DavidJFabe 13:01 Archived in Serbia Comments (1)

Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia and Montenegro

Finally updating the blog!!

Hey!! I finally found time to put together a blog post about traveling through Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia and Montenegro.

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As has become tradition when I travel to Serbia I arrived late. Not nearly as late as I was when coming by bus in 2005 or by air in 2006 – both of those arrivals occurred at 3am and considerably later than the originally scheduled arrival time, and both of those times Mateja was patiently waiting for me. This year my train pulled into Belgrade's central railway station at 10:30pm, only two hours behind the time stamped on my ticket.

Upon arrival I was greeted by Mateja, his brother Andreja and their friend Maja (FYI – in the Yugoslav language the letter “J” is pronounced something like the English letter “Y”). It was a relief to see them and we set to work planning the next week of travel. The leg of the journey from Belgrade, Serbia to my companions' home-town of Nis was to take a 6-day sidetrack through Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia and Montenegro. I was eager to venture back into the parts of Yugoslavia that I hadn't seen since 2005 but was especially grateful to do it with three Serbs. The plan had originally been to head straight to Sarajevo upon my arrival but Mateja, being wise, held off on the purchase of the tickets because of the proclivity for trains to be late in the Balkans. Instead we were to catch the 6:15am bus which left us little time that evening to eat and sleep.

In the morning we headed out of Serbia via Vojvodina – the northern province of Serbia that is comprised of the south Hungarian plain. The Bosnian border is a very dramatic one – the Drina river, which provided the geographic boundary between the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, is flanked on one side by the hills and mountains of Bosnia and on the other by the perfectly flat farmland of north-western Serbia.

After passing across the Drina our progress slowed as our bus navigated the hilly terrain. This was the first time that I had been inside the political entity known as the Republike Srpska which accounts for roughly 49% of the territory of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Both Sarajevo and Mostar lie inside the Federation of Muslims and Croats. It is in the Republike Srpska that one can find the most nationalistic Serbs – not in Serbia proper but in the regions of Bosnia that have a Serbian majority. Similarly, the most nationalistic Croats one is likely to find live in Hercegovina and not in Croatia. It is the Muslims of Bosnia and Hercegovina that tend to be the most liberal, open-minded and friendly.

The bus, coming from Serbia, let us off in the Serb-dominated suburb to the east of Sarajevo's downtown core from which we had to catch a tram back into downtown Sarajevo. By the time we neared the terminus of the tram in central Sarajevo there was hardly room to move inside and the heat was stifling. It was in these close-knit circumstances that Maja committed the first multi-cultural faux pas of our trip in Bosnia by announcing loudly how scary it was to hear the Muslim call to prayer – a comment which drew sudden strained looks from numerous, obviously Muslim, tram passengers. Mateja made quick work to silence Maja before she managed to incite an international incident.

For Mateja, at least, the trip was as much about exploring pieces of his former country, Yugoslavia, from a historical standpoint as it was about relaxing and sight-seeing. I count myself lucky to have been able to be a part of and bear witness to his reaction to these places that I can only experience as a cultural outsider and casual observer. One of the more potent moments was while in the Sarajevo Tunnel which originates in a pock-marked house just south of the Sarajevo airport and was used to ferry food, supplies and weaponry beneath the Bosnian Serb lines in the 1990s. We were unfortunately too late for the tour of the tunnel and museum but when the proprietor (likely a Bosnian Muslim but one can't be sure) heard the Serbian accent of my companions he opened the door of the museum to us and allowed us to see it for ourselves. As we were leaving, Mateja opened the guestbook and wrote “I'm so sorry”. Of course Mateja had nothing to do with the horrors of the 1990s but nationals carry the banners of their most extreme compatriots whether or not they want to and it was a nice gesture.

Later that evening we ate dinner at the Sarajevo brewery. During the war the brewery continued to operate and was a meeting place from time-to-time of multi-ethnic resistance fighters. Some weapons were sneaked into the city under the guise of brewery equipment. The food and beer were fantastic.

When we left the brewery Maja committed her second major faux pas. While posing for a picture in front of the brewery she threw up the hand gesture that represents, in a manner of speaking, the Serbian nation. During the war this became a very politically charged symbol and there are many horrendous photographs of Serbian paramilitary standing over corpses while making the gesture. Mateja and I were horrified and for a second just stared in disbelief before jumping on her. She hadn't been thinking about the potency of the symbol. In fact, prior to this trip Maja had been fairly unaware of the level of atrocity committed in certain corners of former Yugoslavia – especially the siege of Sarajevo.

In Mostar we had what would be the most fun and educational day of our trip. While in Sarajevo we met up with a group of travelers coming from Mostar who just happened to have slept at the same hostel we had a reservation with. They informed us of a not-to-be-missed 13-hour tour of Hercegovina – a triangular region comprising about 1/6 of the landmass of Bosnia and Hercegovina in the south of the country. Not being ones to miss a not-to-be-missed tour we made sure we arrived plenty early from Sarajevo.

After drinking coffee in the hostel, called Majda's Rooms and literally a collection of bedrooms in a Bosniak (Muslim) woman's apartment, a red-faced and exuberant man arrived and immediately started (pleasantly) shouting for everybody to quickly get in his van. This excited man was Bata (a nickname which literally translates to “brother”) and after squeezing 17 foreigners into his van we shot off into the streets of Mostar.

Among our crew of tourists were 20-somethings from the US, Canada, Britain, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Serbia. Bata was pleasantly surprised to discovered Serbs in our midst and while he potentially toned down rhetoric about Serbs he was refreshingly honest about the war – a major component of the tour. He was also one of the few non-academic individuals that I've ever spoken to who accurately pinpointed the goal of the political leadership in the cruel wars of the 1990s – selfish economic privatization and not, as so many others have ignorantly claimed, the fulfillment of ancient ethnic rivalry and hatred (which didn't, and does not, actually exist).

The tour consisted of parts that elicited emotional responses from sadness and anger to hilarity and excitement. We visited an ancient Hungarian fortress, a holy Dervish (of Whirling Dervish fame) House, Medjugorje (where some Croat children claimed to have seen Virgin Mary in the early '80s and which now houses a catholic Megachurch and looks like it belongs in the American south-west) and an impressive collection of waterfalls. By the end of the day (11:40pm) we were thoroughly exhausted and my impression of what the best tourist experiences can be was forever modified, all for 22 Euros.

The following morning we made a quick tour of the actual town of Mostar and photographed the old bridge, now fairly new following its senseless destruction by the Catholic Croatians in 1993. Mostar was the most heavily bombarded city in former Yugoslavia and the scars are still plainly visible along the front line dividing the Croatian and Muslim parts of the city. In what is undeniably bad taste the Croatians constructed first a massive cross on the hillside overlooking the city and secondly a ridiculously tall tower on a Catholic cathedral (poetic justice – the tower was poorly engineered and is leaning heavily and may collapse).

The trip from Mostar to Dubrovnik is beautiful but due to some strange historical territorial holdings forces you to pass into Croatia, back into Bosnia and Hercegovina and into Croatia one more time. We were greeted by warm temperatures and a sunny sky in Dubrovnik which was in marked contrast to the atypically rainy and cold weather that we experienced while in Bosnia (note: there were torrential rain showers when I was in Sarajevo back in 2005 as well).

After checking into our hostel we walked to the old town, grabbed some food, walked around and toured the city walls. Since the last time I was in Dubrovnik prices have skyrocketed. It is now no different than visiting any sea-side Western European destination – both in terms of the cost of things and in the appearance of the city. It's a beautiful town that has benefited from extensive coverage on European and American tourism television shows and in tourism magazines.

For dinner I had an octopus salad which, much to my chagrin, left me very ill the following morning. We had planned to visit the island of Lapad which is said to have the best beaches in the region (no sandy beaches though, just rocky outcroppings) but food poisoning kept me in bed. Mateja, Andreja and Maja had a good time, though they got thoroughly sunburned. Both times that I have been in Dubrovnik I've suffered from some sort of illness . Hopefully next time I won't have the same problems.

The last day of our trip was marathon bus travel. We caught a bus from Dubrovnik to the Montenegrin town of Herceg Novi at 10:30am which got us to our destination in relative speed and comfort though the border provided a 30 minute hiccup. Upon arrival we quickly ate and purchased tickets for the 1:30pm bus from Herceg Novi to Nis, Serbia.

This was a freakishly slow bus ride. We stopped at every little town and every 40 minutes or so we pulled off on the side of the road to deliver suspicious looking black duffel bags to men in cars on the side of the road. The bus drivers refused to stop for bathroom breaks until they had to use the toilet and we didn't stop for any food until after midnight we arrived at a crappy rest stop somewhere in rural western Serbia. In the end it took 14 hours to travel the 560 kilometers to Nis. I'm glad that I will likely not have to travel like that again for some time, though when heading from Belgrade to Salzburg in a couple weeks I may have a similarly long day of travel.

Posted by DavidJFabe 08:26 Comments (1)

The photos!

Nazi currency, birthdays and nature

sunny 28 °C

Hey everybody! Quick update to alert you to the constant stream of photographs. In case you haven't noticed I've uploaded pictures from Sarajevo, Mostar, Dubrovnik and other places. In the update today are photos from Milos's birthday party, pictures from Jelasnica (the village in which Milos lives), and pictures of a Nazi-occupied Yugoslav banknote from 1943. Check them out.

I'm working on a post about our 6-day journey through Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia and Montenegro. I wanted to get it out while it was fresh but I didn't have the opportunity. I'll condense it into a manageable size for you all and upload it shortly.

We're off to Mateja's grandmother's house for lunch now. Serbian beans and more cevapi (fourth day in a row!).

Posted by DavidJFabe 05:09 Archived in Serbia Comments (0)

Milos b-day

Serbian hangover!

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Sitting at Milos's place in Jelasnica near Nis right now recovering from his 12-hour-long b-day party. It was pretty intense. I have photos (mostly taken by the birthday boy himself) to upload but that will have to wait until later. We drank, ate and danced to Serbian "turbofolk" which is essentially Serbian folk music set to electronic dance music beats. There are videos, I'm sorry to say.

Posted by DavidJFabe 06:11 Archived in Serbia Comments (0)

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