Thursday, January 7, 2010

My Serbian Adventure - by Barney Smith - 2009

My Serbian Adventure
by Barney Smith

As I reflect now on my summer experiences, my memories are tinged with sadness. Days after my return from Serbia, I visited my grandfather in hospital. Although frail, he had lost none of his enthusiasm for life or his fascination for the world. Despite the trauma he and my grandmother had been through a year before at the loss of their daughter, my mother, from cancer, he had lost none of his determination or his incorrigible sense of optimism. As I write this article a week after his death, I find it hard to believe that I will never again be able to listen to his sound advice, that I will never again be able to sit and reflect with him about his experiences of life. It is to my grandfather, an inspiration to me in so many ways, that I dedicate my recollections of summer 2009.


(In the picture: Barney with the group of international volunteers)

The Serbian border guard could hardly conceal his amazement. “You’re going to Belgrade? But where’s your car?” I could scarcely blame him for being surprised. There I was, a British citizen with a Kuwaiti residency stamp in my passport, crossing from Romania on foot, carrying a huge rucksack, speaking to the guard in Russian, hoping it was close enough to Serbian to make myself understood. Fortunately it was. “Welcome to Serbia,” he said cheerfully in English, as he stamped my passport. I was on my way.
I had chosen Serbia's fourth largest city, Kragujevac, as my destination for my latest international volunteer project this summer. Although I had been to the former Yugoslavia before – my travels had taken me to Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia – this was to be my first visit to Serbia and I was intrigued by the prospect of visiting a country as yet untouched by mass tourism. Fascinated for as long as I can remember by eastern European culture and history, I had taken the opportunity to make a brief stopover in one of the EU’s newest member states. On a rainy Wednesday morning in mid-July I had found myself on a Wizz Air flight from Luton to the Romanian city of Timişoara, famous as the birthplace of the revolution which would topple dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and lead to his execution by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989. By the time I had finished sight-seeing the next day, my options for direct onward travel had been limited, so I had taken the train to the border town of Stamora-Moraviţa. From there, in the absence of any public transport, my only option had been to walk across the border.

Now safely in Serbian territory I took a taxi to the border town of Vršac and travelled by bus to Belgrade. After a night in a city centre hostel, I took one of the many buses heading south. By chance I found myself sitting next to one of my fellow volunteers; as we approached our destination we wondered, with some trepidation but also much excitement, what experiences awaited us. On arrival in what was to be our home town for the next two weeks, we met up with the other volunteers, as well as the group leaders, Kosta and Vlada, and Alex, who represented the local volunteer organisation, Viktorija. We walked to the site of our project, the 21 October Elementary School, named after the notorious date in 1941 when thousands of the city’s residents were murdered by the Nazis. This was also to be our accommodation and home for the next two weeks.

One of the most intriguing aspects of international volunteer projects is the variety of backgrounds and nationalities of the volunteers. The other participants came from Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Ukraine and the USA; although the official camp language was English, I had ample opportunities to practise my French, Russian and basic Spanish, as well as learn some Serbian words and phrases. The volunteers included students of a variety of subjects, as well as a beautician, a speech therapist, a judge's assistant and a university professor. We spent the first weekend exploring the town, settling into our new accommodation, getting to know our fellow volunteers with the help of games, and organising a rota for cleaning, preparing breakfast and cooking dinner. The variety of countries represented at the project resulted in us sampling a wide range of national dishes from different parts of the world. Lunches were to be provided by the local student cafeteria, a treat given the quality and quantity on offer. Our visits in the town included the grammar school, the aquarium, the weapons museum, and the Museum of Genocide, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the 1941 massacre. We found that the city had a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere and that we were made to feel very welcome both by the local volunteers and activists and by the people of Kragujevac.

(In the picture:Volunteers on local transport)

Having adjusted to our new surroundings and thoroughly enjoyed the weekend, we were ready and eager on Monday morning to start work. The aim of our international volunteer project was to renovate the outside of the school. This involved painting over graffiti and working to improve and beautify the grounds; we set to work picking up litter, trimming the hedge and cutting the grass. Once this was complete we were ready to begin painting; this was our main job to which we devoted most of the two-week placement. By the end of the project, we could take great satisfaction in the results of everyone’s hard work; those countless hours of working our way around the outside of the school with our rollers and brushes had paid off. We felt that with the start of the new school year, which was just weeks away, the staff and students would once again be able to take pride in the appearance of their establishment and enjoy a more pleasant learning environment.

(In the picture: group of volunteers taking a walk together)

During the project, because of our early-morning start to the working day, we were able to make the most of the late afternoon and the evening to enjoy our new surroundings, as well as to benefit from the very diverse Serbian traditions, culture and entertainment. Our activities included an evening barbecue, paintball, bathing in a nearby lake, swimming in the town's open-air pool and jogging. We decided to work through the second weekend in order to enjoy our free days at the end of the project, with the work behind us. Together with activists from Viktorija, we hired a coach and travelled south to the northern border of Kosovo. En route we stopped at Kraljevo, an important transit town to the south, where we enjoyed strolling in the sunshine and sipping the ever-popular (with me anyway!) Turkish coffee; we also visited the Žiča Monastery, famous as the first seat of the Serbian Archbishopric. We were to spend the night in a youth hostel, owned by the municipality of Kragujevac, in Kopaonik National Park; as the sun set over the Balkans we took the opportunity to explore the beautiful surroundings. After a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast, we climbed the peak of Pančićev Vrh, more than 2000 metres above sea level, for a panoramic view into Kosovo. It was hard to believe that, just a few years earlier, this tranquil setting had provided the backdrop for the horrors of some of Europe’s worst ethnic strife since the Second World War. Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence was bitterly contested by most of the Serbs we met, many of whom blamed the NATO airstrikes on Serbian targets in 1999 for accelerating the province’s moves towards self-determination. As we returned to Kragujevac, we enjoyed spectacular views of the mountains as well as the Ibar River, which the road followed for much of the route; our journey also included a visit to the Studenica Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back in the 21 October Elementary School, our work complete and our two-week project sadly behind us, it was time to pack our bags and go our own separate ways; for me this involved an enjoyable few days visiting the Serbian capital, Belgrade, as well as Novi Sad, dubbed the ‘Gibraltar of the Danube’, and Subotica, Serbia’s gateway to Hungary.

Back in my adopted home, Kuwait, where I teach French at one of the Gulf state’s British schools, I find myself in a setting which could not be more different. The rivers and mountains of the Balkans have been replaced by the palm trees and the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula; hills and rolling countryside by dust and sand; church spires by minarets; the sound of the disco by the call to prayer; the da and ne of Serbian by the na'am and la of Arabic; pubs and clubs by coffee houses and the diwaniya; the latest Western fashions by traditional Arab clothing. It is this diversity which for me makes world travel in general, and international volunteer projects in particular, so fascinating and so rewarding, and why I look forward with so much enthusiasm to my future travels.

SR21-09 Kragujevac was hosted by Young Researchers of Serbia – Voluntary Service of Serbia from 17/07/09 to 31/07/09.

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