Bounding through the Balkans on a bicycle bought for a beer

The hero of this story is a purple bike traded for a can of lager.

NIŠ, Serbia— So this Finnish guy ‘rescues’ a broken purple bike in Innsbruck, Austria and proceeds to ride it 1,200 kilometers to Guča, Serbia where I just happened to be preparing a reportage for RFI. He was thirsty and needed a beer; I’d been hitchhiking since Kosovo and was desperate for a bicycle. In a few minutes we had a deal: a can of frosty Nikšićko for the purple 5-speed girl’s bike.

It’s no secret I have a storied tradition with purple girl’s bikes from Austria. But that’s another story.

Back to Guča. In Serbia the trumpet is king and each year its crowning glory takes place in the town of Guča nestled in the hill country where hundreds of thousands flock for a week-long bout of drinking, dancing and, well, trumpeting.

At better writer than I could describe the drunken intensity of throngs of Serbian teenagers, French brass music aficionados, gypsy musicians and other Balkans rednecks converging on a small town for six to seven days of unbridled revelry.

Given the size of the crowds and the amount of homemade plum brandy that feels the frenzy, it’s a pretty positive scene. But there is a darker side: Take one cabbage soup stall: in a bid to drum up business one featured coked-up table-top dancers shaking their double DD accessories while men (and their wives and children) sipped triple-priced espressos.

If the floorshow isn’t your thing (and I swear, I was concentrating on the soup) there are the 6-year-old Roma gypsy girls making the rounds with toy-sized concertinas squeezing out tunes for tips.

That was the last evening and I was glad I had a purple bike to make my escape.

As luck would have it my friend “Velja,” a freelance translator who made his radio debut last May translating Family Radio’s doomsday predictions across Serbia, was also on his way home to Niš .

We decided to ride together.

We ride!

A word about Velja. Like me, he’s a tall, lanky 30-something starting to thicken in the middle. He has a penchant for talking to strangers (which comes easier to him in these parts as he’s a native Serb speaker) and ride fast enough to get where we’re going but not too quickly that he misses the scenery. It was a good pace. His English is impeccable with a dry, staccato delivery. A true Balkan athlete he was constantly forgetting to refill his water bottle but never allowed himself to run out of cigarettes.

Velja takes a break after conquering yet another mighty Serbian peak.

Setting off through the pastoral, rolling countryside, my heavily laden bike with its skinny tires held up well until we decided to stop for a lunch refreshment. Velja knew of a certain brand of beer whose bottles are an extra tenth of a liter, and both of us being the thrifty sort, couldn’t pass up such a bargain. Seated in front of the shop were a half-dozen men who also knew a bargain (such as $0.30 shots of homemade plum brandy).

After an hour of bullshitting with these friendly types in which Velja assured them I was a “pro-Serbian journalist” (whatever the hell that means) we set off. For about 30 meters. I had what would become a theme: one of many breakdowns. I’d stupidly left the bike in the sun and the front tube had burst in the heat.

No sweat. I had a spare tube. In minutes we were back on the road.

The friendly Finn was a generous lad. Not only had he given me the bike and a full set of tools (foreshadowing), he also threw in a powerful Nokia speaker that was loud enough to blast music as we rode. This being rural Serbia and pastoral farmland with cornfields, cows, sheep and geese the only choice was American countrywestern and blues.

I had Credence Clearwater Revival to get me up the hills, and when there was need for speed, Fred Eaglesmith. There was Gil-Scott Heron for moments of reflection and Steve Young for the straightaways. Life was good – these Serbian villages weren’t used to seeing purple bikes blasting American country music as they wobbled through their town.

We were making ridiculously good time. The purple bike performed admirably, cresting hills even though it only has four (working) gears. The brakes were soft and with the weight it was a terrifying going down. Its skinny tires made for a fast ride and I did my best not to careen out of control. But the road surfaces are pretty good in Serbia and you can really fly if you want to. I didn’t want to and my hands screamed in painful protest bearing down on the brakes as we switch-backed down through forested mountain roads.

A pitiful example of the scenery. But then again, I don’t take many photos on my travels.

It was on the first day that I realized this purple bike was magical. After the rear axle snapped and we had to take a lift with an extremely inebriated farmer, we stashed the bike in the back of a bikeshop whose owner (told us on the phone) he’d have a look at it in the morning.

Bivouacked in the headquarters of the local chapter of the mountaineering club in the town of Trstenik, we awoke the next morning with a phone call from the bike mechanic who said the bike was fixed and waiting for us in a nearby coffee shop. We met the young Marlon Brando lookalike. At first I was nervous, there had been no discussion of payment and I wasn’t sure how this would turn out. After he paid for our coffees, he casually mentioned he doesn’t charge travelers and wished us well on our journey.

The guy looks a bit like Marlon Brando, doesn’t he?

It was on Day 2 on the road when I had blown the sidewall of the rear tire and popping tubes like they were going out of style that things became desperate. Despite the best efforts of a resourceful 12 year old who tied my tire up with plastic cord, the bike was going nowhere.

A 12-year-old tried to mend the bike. It lasted for about a half-mile before blowing the tube.

I limped into a village where we received a hero’s welcome at the local shop from the beer-swilling natives. The shopowner insisted we drive with him and his (sober) friend to a nearby town to find a new tire. The new tire was about 10 euros and he insisted on paying out of his own pocket, drunkenly dropping wads of Serbian dinar notes on the ground and slurringly warning me off from protesting.

Embarrassment came when half way back to the village I realized I’d left my bag with laptop and every other valuable electronic item I own back at the bike shop. But they took us back to retrieve the bag which was untouched in the dust.

Having lost an extreme amount of time we were worried we wouldn’t make Niš by nightfall. The last 20 kilometers were ridden on a straight stretch of road in total darkness. We had one pathetic flashing red light and I juggled my flashlight as semi-trucks overtook us.

Some beer-swilling saviors. Note the busted tire on the right.

At the next town we had to admit our defeat and rode a bus for the last 30 kilometers in to Niš .

The bike changes hands yet again for a single-serving of beer.

Back in Niš the bike passed hands again – this time to Velja’s girlfriend. It was traded in a solemn ceremony in which he traded me a single bottle of Niško. I’ll miss that magic bicycle but he promises I get visitation rights next time I find myself in southern Serbia.

Jaco out

5 responses to “Bounding through the Balkans on a bicycle bought for a beer”

  1. I admire your stamina: for me, it’s really tiring riding the bike through all the hills even in spring… I can’t imagine what it must be like in the summer heat!

  2. this is a dummy address, anyway it’s good to see your blog again, you havent posted here in a while right?

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