Don’t mention the war!
This summer, I spent a couple weeks traipsing across the small Balkan nation of Serbia, with the aim of earning an Explorer Belt. My team of four—me, Jack, Josh and Eve, along with our (starting) mentor Harriet (a.k.a. Ms Butterfield)—set off as
Ms Butterfield’s Boys, and returned as
Team Luxury; this is the story of how that happened.
What is the Explorer Belt?
According to the Scout Association Web site, the Explorer Belt is
the challenge of a lifetime. The award, which is open to the older members of the 14–18 yo Explorers section and the adult members of the 18–25 yo Network section, is one of three top awards in UK scouting, along with the Scouts of the World Award and the Queen’s Scout Award.
Earning the Belt requires one to go on a 10-day hike in a foreign country, in teams of 3–5. Over the ten days, you should cover at least 160 km. Unlike something like the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, though, the primary goal is not to pit yourself against the elements or to test your endurance. Instead, the aim is to explore the culture of the country you are in, and as such participants are encouraged to take advantage of
home hospitality wherever the opportunity arises (although they should still carry tents for when that fails).
In addition, each team devises a major project which they aim to complete during their journey, as well as a list of minor projects which they are only presented with at the start of the hike. Shortly after returning home, the teams have to deliver a presentation on their experiences to an audience of local Scouts.
I undertook this expedition for two purposes: first, to earn the Explorer Belt; second, to complete the Expedition/Exploration section of the Congressional Award. Also for the craic.
Planning and Preparation
After having come up with a few previous ideas for Explorer Belt trips (including a November that would have taken place across Belgium and France and coincided with the centenery of the end of the First World War) that ended up being non-starters, Jack and I heard that the West Lancs Scout county would be running a county-wide expedition to Serbia in mid-2019. We had been struggling to find additional people to make up the numbers for our group, so this seemed like a good idea and we sent in our applications.
In the months leading up to the trip we had a series of training weekends. The first focused on the participants getting to know one another and sorting themselves into groups. Prior to this, Jack and I had managed to recruit Josh and Eve, so we were all set for the expedition. Another weekend saw us fundraising in a local supermarket by packing bags and placing the cutest Explorers we had by the doors with buckets; another had us traipsing around Manchester following a trail of landmarks and attempting to solve trivia questions in an effort to get people over their fear of asking strangers questions. Outside the official training weekends my team organised a weekend camping in the Lake District, only for our driver to burst a tyre on the drive back. This ended up being ideal Explorer Belt practice, however, as we started hunting around local driveways for cars with similar lock nuts and bothering the locals. Eventually a lovely woman made us all a cup of tea and called out the AA, who sorted everything out under her policy.
We also divided the team up into roles based on expertise. Due to my experience in St John Ambulance I ended up as the team medic, and I showed the most aptitude for Serbian so I also became the group translator. Jack took on the treasurer role whilst Josh decided to focus on navigation. Eve was there for moral support. We didn’t elect a single leader, but Jack and I ended up driving much of the decision-making by virtue of our personalities.
It turns out there’s not a lot of material out there for learning a niche language like Serbian—8–9M native speakers and Duolingo doesn’t have a course for it, but does have one for Dothraki—so I picked myself up a book and tried to slog my way through it as best I could during the buildup to the trip. We also made sure to sample some rakija, a sort of fruit brandy/moonshine endemic to Serbia.
We also had to come up with our major project. I initially wanted our project to focus on the impact of the Danube river on the surrounding towns and villages, as I figured following the course of the river would make for a lovely journey. Unfortunately, though, we were told that we wouldn’t be anywhere near the Danube, so it was back to the drawing board. As we wouldn’t find out where exactly we would be until we were actually in-country, I proposed the following location-agnostic project, which we all agreed on:
To explore how young people in Serbia spend their time (e.g., sports, Scouting, etc.), and how this has changed over the past thirty years.
We met at Manchester Airport for 03:30, which necessitated a 01:30 wakeup in Lancaster. We flew to Belgrade via a stopover at Hamburg, and then had a lengthy coach trip from the airport to Šabac, where the leadership team would be based for the duration of the challenge.
We didn’t get any downtime, however, as we were shuttled off to the city hall for a meeting with the mayor and a few other officials, who told us that Scouting was once much bigger in Serbia than it is now, but that this is something they are trying to change. I saw an opportunity to get a headstart on our major project, and asked about the sorts of things the young people did these days instead: mostly sports or video games, it turns out.
After the mayor, we made our way to a public park on the outskirts of the city that was to be our base camp for the next fortnight. We set up our tents, dealt with a few more admin. bits and bobs and then ducked out at the earliest possible opportunity with Marina, one of the Scouts from Šabac, to a nearby church for a beer and an ice cream. In marked contrast to the UK, a lot of the churches we were to see were new builds; churches are on the rise in Serbia. We also had our first glimpse of the darker side of Serbia, with Marina telling us that Serbian politicians were all corrupt and that local ones had been responsible for taking over her group’s Scout hut, which had clearly upset her.
She pledged to vote for
any name I don’t recognise in the next election, and planned to move to Munich as soon as possible to
live a better life—as will also become clear, Serbia has a bad problem with brain drain. Finally, we headed back to campsite and I went for a shower, although the showers were worse than some I had seen in Ukraine a month earlier.
On our second and final day in Šabac, we finally found out our starting location: the small village of Dupljaj, about 70 km away taking the most direct route. Most of the day was spent route planning and sorting out other bits of admin. whilst Josh complained about the heat. I had a short salsa lesson with Marina at lunchtime, and we saw our first stray dog (not that we realised it was a stray before most of us stroked it). We finished our route planning just as the sun was setting, which was handy, had a few more briefings from the leadership team and turned in for an early night.
Day 1: Dupljaj to Stepanje
It was a long drive to Dupljaj. Once we arrived, we took our list of minor challenges from the leaders, said our goodbyes and took stock of our surroundings. We’d been dropped off outside a church mid-wedding, and we were unsure of what to do first: start walking, or see if we can crash the wedding. Just as we made up our minds to do the latter, the wedding party rushed past us and out of the church, jumped in their waiting cars and drove off. We were a bit dumbfounded, but would later discover that the Serbian wedding custom is not to hang around at the church in favour of getting straight to a nearby restaurant for a meal (honking your horns the whole way there).
However, we spotted the priest milling around and decided to go say hi. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak a word of English. Just as were about to give up on charades and start our walk, however, two more priests arrived, one with a fancy-looking chain around his neck. We figured there might be value in sticking around, and our intuitions were proven right when the priest explained who we were. Turned out the younger of the two new arrivals spoke fluent English, and from him we found out that the guy with the chain was the bishop of the whole region—Episkop Milutin.
He asked what religious beliefs we all had: Jack and Eve got off easy with their Catholicism whilst Josh and I ummed and ahhed around our atheism. After a few circumspect comments about Islam and Kosovo, though, Milutin offered to call ahead to the priest at our destination for the day and tell him to get some food and a spare room sorted for us—result! Thus began our induction into the PriestNet, which in the Serbian countryside is faster and more effective than trying to use the Internet to pass messages around. We said our thanks and headed off to actually start our walk.
It was sweaty going, but Josh seemed to have acclimatised somewhat in Šabac. Along the way a lady gave us some figs out of her basket. We finally arrived at Stepanje some hours later and met Zoran the priest and his family. Zoran understood more English than he spoke, so things were still fairly charades-y for a time, but we got through it. Before long, his English-speaking friend Dragana (Gaga) arrived to translate. As were also to learn on this trip, the longer we spoke to people the greater the chances some of their Anglophone mates would appear out of thin air.
We asked about youth past-times and Gaga repeated that young Serbs either played sports or, increasingly, video games. We asked her why Scouting was shrinking:
Serbs don’t like walking. A little later, another Zoran arrived—this one from Nottingham, but back in Serbia to visit his family. We told him what we were there for and he told us to enjoy ourselves, promising that
you’ll see a glimpse of how England used to be. He also told us that rakija makes excellent mosquito repellent, which explains why we smelt of alcohol for the rest of the trip (honestly, no other reasons for it…). Before he left, Nottingham Zoran offered us the use of his gaff for free if we ever found ourselves in Serbia again. For our first day, we weren’t doing too bad for ourselves.
After we told Gaga that we’d been warned by our leaders to avoid the police if possible, Zoran the priest immediately invited his policeman friend over. Zoran’s wife laid on an incredible meal, and then we all drank an awful lot of rakija. There was a lot of singing.
We planned to head to somewhere called
Man. Dokmir the next day, but Zoran helpfully informed us that it was a monastery full of nuns and we might not have much luck finding a place to stay. Instead, he offered to come pick us up when we got there and to bring us back to Stepanje for the evening, where he had something planned. It seemed like a good idea, so we agreed. After the meal, he showed us around his 700-year-old church, including memorials to the fallen of both world wars and the 300-year-old cross and bible held in the church’s reliquary—
he’s never showed me that before, said Gaga.
A few more of Zoran’s English-speaking friends arrived, with rakija of course. Conversation swiftly turned to Kosovo and the NATO bombing campaign which, despite the fact we had been warned by our leaders to avoid bringing up, were constantly brought up by others during our trip. I asked Gaga about why it was such a concern, considering it happened some twenty years ago, and she suggested that
Serbs like to play the victim, and seemed to have some perverse fixation on their reputation as the
At this point my notes get less legible. I can make out
Tata Zoran (
Tata being Serbian for
father, but apparently not a term used to describe Orthodox priests),
so much drunken karaoke and
čestitam! (Serbian for
congratulations!, and a word we would abuse over the next couple weeks). At one point Vlado, one of Zoran’s friends who looked like Lenin, thought that I was from the Balkans because of the quality of my Serbian pronunciation—result again!
By the end of the night, we had been effectively adopted by Zoran, who was henceforth known as
Veliko Tata Zoran (Serblish for
Big Daddy Zoran), or VTZ for short.
Day 2: Stepanje to…Stepanje
route; tour of Ub route
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we had a fairly late start. VTZ’s wife put on a lovely breakfast and we headed off, full of sausage meat and derring-do. Before long, a lady driving past stopped her car to see if we were lost, and called her daughter to translate when she realised we didn’t speak Serbian. She ended up offering us a lift to the monastary, but we had some distance to walk so we politely declined. Shortly after we passed a farm, where one of the guys picking fruit called us over to give us a big bag of pears and plums—he seemed to take a shine to Eve and gave her her very own pear.
A while later we ran into Vlado,
fresh from a healthy bout of cow insemination according to my notes (he was a farmer, not a deviant). He said he might see us again in the evening and wished us luck. Eventually we got to the nunestary, but it seemed empty. Eventually, we spotted a few nuns looking as us from the other end of the garden and chattering to one another, but when we waved they scurried away. We figured we weren’t going to get a chance to look around, so we lay down by a toilet block (the loveliest toilet block we were to encounter in all of Serbia) and called VTZ. As we were waiting, however, the gate clanked open and an elderly nun beckoned us in. Anastasja showed us around the grounds and the chapels, and we helped her out with a bit of gardening.
VTZ arrived and took us to Ub, the largest nearby city. For about three hours we wandered around, communicating through a mixture of his broken English, my broken Serbian and wild hand gesticulations. We went for a meal and ran into the former mayor, went by a football grounds and saw how being a priest clearly made VTZ a popular local figure. Then we headed over to a football academy set up by Nemanja Matić (a name we heard far too frequently, as soon as people heard we were from near Manchester), ran into more of VTZ’s pals and followed them back home to a big party—Serbs, Russians, Germans and us Brits.
Everyone was getting ready for a big night out in nearby Lajkovac, which was celebrating its slava—its patron saint’s holy day—that night with a big music festival. As we sat in the garden watching the children playing around with a hoverboard, VTZ commented that
Serbs are very happy with little. Lajkovac itself was heaving, and I ended up getting Eve a rose from a passing vendor without realising I would then have to pay for it. I ended the night playing with some stray dogs, introducing Eve as my wife (
moj žena) and telling everybody that Josh only eats pastry.
It was a good night.
Day 3: Stepanje to Ub
It was another rough morning, but a bit of hair of the dog—rajika, for which I was beginning to acquire a taste—and all was well. Josh was cranky due to lack of sleep, but we had a nice easy start to the day: we walked over to Gaga’s house in nearby Slovac, ditched our bags and headed down to Kum’s Watermill, a lovely little cafe bar in the middle of a valley.
So far, we had been unable to pay for anything as other people kept rushing to do so. Gaga hadn’t brought any money, so we thought we’d finally found our chance…but then the owner refused to take any money. We swung by Gaga’s to pick up our bags and then set off on a long, boring trek up the 144 road.
We barely made it more than two minutes before being called over by a guy at a corner shop who (we think) was Nottingham Zoran’s brother. He bought us big bottles of beer and water, but we had to (reluctantly) refuse the former as the added weight didn’t appeal. We think he was trying to offer us a lift, too, but we tried to get across that we didn’t want one and kept walking.
After a while on the road we ran into Ivan, and shortly thereafter a kitten that followed us for about an hour and a half, diving in and out of traffic and almost giving us a heart attack each time. They left us together, but Serbia being what it is there’s no way of knowing if the kitten was originally Ivan’s or just adopted on the road.
Serbia is peppered with hundreds of identical little shops, each of which stocks broadly the same things and each of which has a bench or log outside with old men drinking at all hours of the day. We stopped at every one, be it for an ice cream, beer or to see if any of the old men spoke English (or, more likely, had an English-speaking friend they could get to come down).
We eventually arrived in Ub, thoroughly sick of the 144. The church was lovely, but empty. We stuck around for a bit, vaguely remembering that VTZ had said something about the priests all going to the regional capital of Valjevo for something today. Sure enough, a little later he showed up, along with a few colleagues. They put on another sausage-heavy meal, but VTZ tells us that the church don’t have anywhere we can stay.
Luckily, a few minutes later he tells us that the priests have sorted us out a hotel room—the penthouse suite, no less. From this point on, we are officially known as Team Luxury—bringing that tent is starting to seem like a big waste of time.
We met back up with some of the people from the night before at a local funfair where we saw just how vicious the kids could be on the dodgems. One little girl had been yelling
jeboooo constantly, which we thought was
yeah boiii and repeated—turns out it means
Gaga showed up and we went for a meal with her and VTZ. Episkop Milutin had asked if we could come to Valjevo to see him and there was a football match in Ub the next day that we wanted to see, so we tried to negotiate a change of plan with the leaders. We weren’t allowed to go to Valjevo, but we settled on a compromise where we would complete a walk and stay elsewhere the next night but could get a lift back to Ub for the football match if we wanted. We also decided to amend our major project, as we had rapidly found that answers to our previous one were pretty much identical no matter where we went. Instead, we settled on:
To explore how young people in Serbia engage with the Orthodox religion, and how this has changed over the past thirty years.
Day 4: Ub to Vrelo
The walk to Vrelo is long and sweaty, but we’re just grateful that—unlike on the 144—there are things to see on the way. The tiredness is starting to catch up with us and Eve falls asleep at lunch, bless her little cotton socks.
Eventually we arrive at Vrelo and make a beeline for the church, where we meet Aleksandr the priest and his dog Bruno. He shows us around his church—Bruno, the little miscreant, tried to sneak in with us but Aleksandr shooed him away—and then says he has a dining hall we can sleep on the floor of. He tells us he is about to drive to Ub, so we ditch the bags and catch a ride back with him.
The hottest day we’ve experienced by far, we stumble around the city until we find a bar with cold beers and colder air conditioning. We head over to the football ground and watch half of the game before concluding that it is far too hot and the standard of play far too poor to continue. On the way out of the city we pass the funfair again and hop back on the dodgems—we forgot to film it the night before.
The walk back to Vrelo is certainly one for raising the heartrates: Serbian drivers are not too keen on speed limits and streetlight coverage is spotty at best.
Day 5: Vrelo to Banjani
It’s another in a long string of late starts, which we are sure to regret later when it leaves us having to walk through the main heat of the day. Eve’s managed to wear a hole in her shoulder where the bag has been rubbing, so I patch her up.
We’ve been butting heads with the leadership team over the past few days due to our constant route changes, and we run into two of them whilst sat outside a cafe. They tell us our team mentor has been changed from Harriet to Nichola, and that we are not to talk to our mentor separately from the WhatsApp group with all the leadership team where we are coördinating our check-ins and route updates. My journal notes at this point are less than friendly, including the use of the term
We arrived at the church in Banjani, but the priest was out. We sat with his wife for an awkward little while, not sure if she was annoyed we were there or if it was just the language barrier. In classic Serbian fashion, her English-speaking friend soon arrived in answer to a call, along with a bunch of kids who had presumably been hiding beforehand.
We still had a few kilometers to do for the day, so we walked up to the nearby village of Vukićevica, where we ran into one of the other groups who had managed to wrangle themselves an entire house for the night. We headed back to Banjani and amused the priest’s kids with our Serbian pronunciation attempts, after which the priest’s wife brought out an illustrated dictionary for us to point at things in—sassy, but appreciated.
The English-speaking friend—Vasna—took us to visit a family-run food company producing fruit preserves, chillis, rakija, etc. Of course, it being Serbia we came away with a hamper full of everything, which was lovely, but not wildly convenient to have to carry for four more days. The owner of the company showed us photos of when he had been a Scout leader and told us about being a Pioneer in his youth.
Vasna told us that a local news crew had arrived to interview the group we saw in Vukićevica and asked if we wanted to join in. Of course we did, so we headed back to Banjani and had our brush with showbiz. Then it was off to the centre of the village for their slava celebrations, including some very questionable music.
Day 6: Banjani to Krnić
It was Banjani’s slava proper today, so we stuck around until 8am to attend our first Orthodox church service, along with the group who had stayed in Vukićevica. After an hour of standing in the stifling heat, listening to chanting in a language we didn’t speak, we such around for breakfast with the priest and his family. I asked his son, who had been helping out during the service, if he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a priest—that’s how we learnt the word
jok, which is like a far more emphatic
no. Eventually we said our goodbyes and set off. It was another incredibly hot day, and the walk one of our sweatiest yet; maybe sticking around in Banjani so late wasn’t the greatest idea, but I think it was worth it to get to experience the service.
Our fortunes soon turned once we arrived in Krnić, however, and the very first house we passed was having some sort of party in the garden. Someone called us over and invited us to join them for drinks and some food—it turned out it was a three-way party and family reunion in celebration of the family’s slava, the town’s slava and one of the girl’s thirteenth birthday, all on the same day. Classic Team Luxury. After some partying, the weather started to turn. Seeing the looks on our faces, we were promptly put up in a guest building where we sat and watched the lightning strike in the distance and chatted to the younger, more Anglophone people there.
The family, as most Serbs seem to, had left Serbia a couple generations ago for German pastures anew. As my bad German was less-bad than my bad Serbian, we managed to get by mostly with that with the others, although the constant language-switching was starting to fry my brain and I caught myself more than a few times with blank looks from my teammates after I said something in Serbian, German or French without realising, or in slowed-down English as though it wasn’t their native language.
One thing that we had noticed this far into our travels was that religion seemed to be far more important in the lives of Serbs than we were used to back home, even the younger ones who didn’t necessarily believe in it all but who nonetheless enjoyed the traditions and celebrations. To this, one of the Anglophones replies simply:
I don’t give a fuck about religion. So there’s that.
Day 7: Krnić to Krnule
We were in no hurry to leave Krnić, as we’d been told we could help out with picking plums for rakija and a few other of the mini-challenges that we had been struggling to complete. When we finally did set off, we barely made it through the town before someone had called us over to their table outside one of those carbon-copy corner shops. We explained what we were doing to Marko, who promptly drove us to the house he shared with his parents, and there went the rest of our morning. After a tour of the farm and town and meeting a bunch of Marko’s friends (who, of course, all gave us gifts to add to our increasingly overburdened backpacks) we got a tractor ride to the outskirts of town and finally set off walking.
Now, a slight digression: one of my personal interests is in how anarchist/non-hierarchical societies can set up structures to allow them to respond rapidly to emergencies, or whether these services are an example of where one requires some sort of coercive power and hierarchy. I say this because as we were walking along we saw a road traffic accident when a car tried to pass a truck on a narrow bridge at high speed, misjudged it, clipped its undercarriage on the raised side wall of the bridge, jumped up in the air and settled down teetering half-over the side.
As we ran over to see if anyone was injured, both vehicle occupants emerged, the car ones visibly shaken. But what surprised me was that nobody was arguing and there were no recriminations. Instead, everyone started to assess the state of the car and discussed how to safely dislodge it. People from nearby houses came out wielding planks and such. A few people took it upon themselves to stand further up the road in both directions and halt traffic. Eventually, everyone (including us) mucked in to return the car to the road, and when it revved back to life everyone gave a cheer. Hands were shook all round, and everyone went about their day.
As people had repeatedly told us, Serbian authorities (e.g., the police) effectively don’t exist outside of the major cities. In their absence, though, was mutual aid, rather than chaos. That was very interesting to see.
Later we arrived at another church, where a bunch of people were sat outside waiting for the priest to arrive for a service. We asked if we would be able to join and they said it was fine, but it wasn’t until we were in and I whispered to the guy next to us what the occasion was that we discovered it was a memorial service for somebody’s grandmother. Afterwards, they invited us down to the grave. We felt a bit odd having just crashed a memorial by accident, but figured it would be ruder not to so headed down and we all had a picnic on the grave site, with one portion of everything left on the grave for the deceased. It was a surreal experience, but definitely interesting.
Then, as we were back to walking, some of them came back in a car to give us a platter of pork and a load of bread. Which we then had to carry. For 7 km. Serbians are too hospitable for their own good.
We were running very late and didn’t think we would make it to our original destination of Mehovine, so decided to shift targets to the closer Vladimirci instead. Big mistake. It was raining heavily, we had no luck finding anyone who knew anywhere where we could stay and we slowly realised that by walking into a small city we had scuppered our chances of finding somewhere to camp. It was getting on for 19:00, by which time each day we were supposed to know where we were staying that night and update the leadership team. Demoralised, we decided to suck it up and head to Mehovine after all.
Then, just as we were about to abandon hope, a car come screeching to a halt beside us on the road.
Do you guys need some help, asked the driver. Yes indeed. He tells us he just has to drop his father off in Vladomirci and then he’ll be back for us, and can sort us out with accommodation. We thank our lucky stars and sit on a bench to wait for him, desperately hoping this isn’t some sort of terrible practical joke. Before long, though, he’s back! We hop in and drive off.
Our saviour is another Zoran, this one a university professor in France who is back in Serbia to build a house with his father. On the way he stops somewhere, tells us to hang on and gets out of the car. A little later he returns with a big bag of takeaway for us. We definitely like Zoran. We takes us to his under-construction house and shows us around. There’s no power or running water, but we’re just glad to have a roof over our heads and to be far away from Shitomirci.
Day 8: Krnule to Zablaće
The night before, we instituted a series of rakija fines, both as a way of burning through some of the huge volumes of the stuff we had managed to accumulate so far and as a way of deterring people from doing things that were getting on everyone else’s nerves, particularly at this late stage were tempers were really beginning to fray. For Josh, any mention of being hot/tired/hungry would require a shot, for example. By the time we finished breakfast, Josh and Eve were already on one each and Jack was on two.
After walking for a while we arrived at the town just before Zablaće, but we didn’t have much luck finding anyone at all, let along anyone who might be able to put us up for the night. At one point we started chatting to a guy who had been walking barefoot alongside us on the other side of the road for about a kilometer, and then he flagged down a car, told us to hang on and ran over to it. We got excited, thinking that he had flagged down a pal to give us a lift, but then he hopped in the passenger seat and the car shot off. We were left a little dumbstruck.
We even ran into him again later, as part of the drinking old men contingent outside another carbon-copy corner shop overlooking a small town with a very imposing church tower in it. We spoke to him and his pals for a while and they complained that we had bombed that town in the 90s (again, lads, we were foetuses then). We headed off, and wondered if we ought to change our destination from Zablaće, which our terrible decades-old map didn’t say had a church, to the town in the valley which clearly did. We made our way through Zablaće, stopped at a school to play on the seesaws for a bit and managed to get a free beer in exchange for a very poor rendition of a traditional Serbian dance—the kolo, which you can see us trying to do at the end of the interview from Banjani.
We made our way through the whole town and were about three houses away from its far limits with nothing to show for it thusfar. We decided to carry on to the limits just in case, and then to head for the valley town if we didn’t have any luck, which proved to be an excellent idea when the very last house had a family sat in the garden who waved us over. We learnt they had seen another group of us pass by that morning, which made us realise how close we were all getting to Šabac. They invited us in and offered us a place to stay and some food.
The parents went to bed and we stayed up late chatting and drinking with Stefan and Mima. They gave us a very unvarnished picture of what Serbia is like for the average Serbian, and why so many try to leave:
if you want to be rich here you have to be a criminal, or a politician, or somewhere in-between, said Stefan.
On the brighter side, we did get one of our best vlog clips here: us stood on the balcony, looking out over the farm and boasting about not having had to use our tent at all so far, only to then turn to Mima sticking her head out and asking if we wanted new sheets on the beds. Team. Bloody. Luxury.
Day 9: Zablaće to Varna
We set off and went through a Romani village, whilst Jack told us all the juicy, possibly-bollocks anecdotes of Lancaster history that only a local can know. We had debated many a dreadful
would you rather? on the journey so far, but today’s was definitely the best:
would you rather have nipples all over your skin, or just the normal two but they are both 2m long? Scholarly debate ensued. We had instituted more rakija fines by this point, and by the morning they had already claimed two more victims.
When we arrived at Varna, we found two women sat on a bench in the church courtyard. Within about five seconds of sitting with them, it seemed, about half of the town had come out to try helping us find somewhere to stay. People were calling friends, bringing fruits, bringing beers, etc. We tried telling them what we were doing and showed them some photos on our phone—the moment they saw the picture of Episkop Milutin, they offered to let us stay at the church. PriestNet coming through again.
The priest was up on some incredibly rickety scaffolding repainting the belltower and came down. He was like a mad, drunk Santa—it was great. Jack and I climbed the tower to try and fly our Scout necker from the top for one of our mini-challenges, and almost gave the priest’s son Nemanja (Nem) a heart attack doing so. We also learnt that one of the daughters was a keen handball player; just what we needed, playing a game of handball was our only remaining mini-challenge to complete. Then Jack promptly punted the ball into a cactus and burst it.
Nem took us to a pub in town for some drinks, where his friend Maya was working. After a couple hours, a Scout from Varna showed up and joined us; the only one we’d encountered outside of Banjani and Šabac. Through messaging one of the other groups we discovered that they had been chased out of a village the other night by a rather irate old lady threatening to call the police, we think because they were advised to put on their Scout uniforms after not having any luck getting accommodation for the night, and the uniforms possibly look vaguely militaristic. Perhaps the lady thought they were a NATO raiding party.
We got back to the church for midnight to find mad Santa cooking up a massive BBQ. After putting Nem in charge, he then practically ran off to the nearest shop to get more beers and we stayed up into the wee hours of the morning. Things took a bit of a dark turn when (as was so often the case) the topic of conversation was invariably turned towards Kosovo with all the subtlety of a truck crashing through the wall and Nem went on about he would
die for Kosovo and how
hopefully the UN will leave soon and we can go shoot the Albanians. I don’t think he took kindly to my suggestion that it’s very easy for him to act like the hero and say the former when saying things like the latter are exactly why the UN won’t be leaving any time soon and he’ll never have to back it up with action.
Day 10: Varna to Šabac
It was our final day and we hadn’t even spent half of the money we’d brought with us. As we tried to recover from the night before with some hair of the dog in the church garden, we saw the same group from Vukićevica walk past and invited them in for a chat. They’d been walking since 6am to get to Šabac for the 13:00 deadline, whereas we had ingeniously walked extra on most of the previous days in order to enjoy just having to do a nice leisurely few kilometers on the final day. We even had time to wait for the local bakery to custom-bake us some gluten-free bread for Eve so she could stop farting.
When we finally arrived in Šabac we picked Eve up and carrier her back into the park, handed our diaries in and had a well-earned nap. That night marked our first night in a tent since setting off on the expedition: Team Luxury knows no other life.
R&R and the Journey Home
After all the admin was done, we had a day to relax in Novi Sad. We lost Josh almost immediately, which didn’t come as much of a surprise, and adopted Lorna from one of the other groups instead. We looked around the fortress in Novi Sad, had our debrief with the leadership team where we all reflected on our experiences and I almost lost all of our passports when I left my daysack in a restaurant. Eve and I ended the first night on the banks of the Danube watching the fortress lights twinkle.
Then it was off to Belgrade for two days. We had a tour, which was pretty interesting, and a boat tour, which was less so. The four of us ended up going out for dinner, Eve got very drunk and Lorna managed to laugh so hard she threw up. All in all a fine night. We spent most of the second day in Belgrade trying to find our way back to Skadarlija, where we had been on the tour. We met up with some of the other groups later in the evening and all went out together. Also a fine night.
We flew back the same route we had taken to get to Serbia. After a long time waiting by the baggage carousel at Manchester Airport, we realised that they had somehow managed to somehow lose all 50-odd of our bags. That would have been enough of a pain in the arse on its own, but in my infinite wisdom I hadn’t thought to put my keys in my hand luggage. Cue frantic phone calls to my landlady on the drive back to Lancaster, and eventually having to call out an emergency locksmith to drill my way back into my flat—I had only moved in the week before we set off for Serbia.
There was no time to rest; the day after we arrived back, I was starting a new job at Lancaster University. We also had to put on a presentation to the local Scout district about our experience, which needed making. I had also volunteered to edit a short video of our trip, and then promptly realised I had completely forgotten how to use my video editing software. No worries, we got everything done just on time and put on a cracking presentation. Unfortunately the recording of the presentation itself came out a bit crap, but you can see the video we made here.
A month later, we were at an award ceremony to receive our belts and badges. Not too shabby a job at all, if I do say so myself.