Across Europe, vol. 5: The greatest shade

Minefield

Zagreb, Croatia

18 May 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

A man in Završje had run to his back yard to give me the last two apples from his apple tree.  At five in the evening, the temperature on the thermometer hanging from my neck was still 30ºC; it had peaked at 36º or so that afternoon.  Over the course of the day, I would drink between six and seven liters of water, milk, and iced tea.  I had woken in a forest, eaten burek for lunch; at some point I think a police car pulled me over.  Later, three large men beside a car on a lonely stretch of road initiated the following conversation:

“Where are you going?”

“I am walking from Istanbul to Zagreb.”

“Istanbul?”

“Yes.”

“Alone?”

“Yes.”

They whistled to each other.

“Money, money.”

“Money, money?” I replied.

“Money –“ the man pulled several notes from his pocket and waved them in front of my face while his friend elaborated:

“He wants to know how much it costs you.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You are being followed?”

“I’m being followed?”

“He means, you have an escort, behind you?  Friends?”

“No,” I said, waved goodbye, and began checking over my shoulder at each turn in the road.

Deževci, Pasikovci, Orljavac; no shelter, no way off the road, stinging nettles, gut trouble from Serbia persisting, pain.  An old man interrogating me.  Blinding sunset.  As night fell and I reached the last building in Orljavac, a couple sitting at a picnic table under the eaves shouted for me to come over.  I set my pack down and collapsed on the bench across from them as it began to rain.  Of the two, the woman spoke the better English; and she used this advantage the better to appreciate the conversational subtleties as her more talkative companion and I exchanged gestures, grunts, and syntaxless assortments of nouns, verbs, and place-names.  After about fifteen minutes and a tour of the building – the local hunting lodge, all gussied up for a banquet the following evening – we were rattling along like a claptrap backwoods tricycle.  The man kept offering me things to drink, despite my steady polite refusal; eventually a mischievous look came into his eye and he set down his beer.

“Two months,” he said.  “Girls?  No girls?  Istanbul?  Požega?”

“No,” I said.  “If I’d met someone, either I would be there, or she would be here.”

“But – lav?  Love?  Love.”  He executed a series of rapid, impatient gestures.  “USA.  Canada.”

“US, Canada?” I said.

“US, Mexico!”  He pressed his hands in an attitude of prayer.  “Granica.  How to say…love, bez granica.”

“Border?” we said.  “Love without borders?”

“Love without borders!”

Before sending me off into the dark and the rain, the man traced out the road I would have to follow to reach the nearest hotel, another 30 kilometers away in Pakrac.  It was the road I had hoped to take the next day, dotted steadily with villages; I just hadn’t hoped to have to stay in a hotel, and I hadn’t hoped to walk through the night.  He tapped the bleary map and pointed into the gloom as I folded it and put it back in my pocket.

“Twenty-five kilometers, not a house.  Straight.  Then Pakrac.  Maybe you find a girl in Pakrac!  Then –“ and he made the universal head-on-hands gesture for blissful sleep.  We bid each other a cheerful good night and I tightened my hipbelt, vaguely wondering, as their porch light receded and the pain kicked back in, what he had meant by “not a house.”

I began to run into the mine signs immediately.  I had already encountered several minefields between Vukovar and Đakovo, but that was in daylight, near towns, among people; it felt like life, if life under constant threat.  The valley leading north and west from Orljavac was something more like hell.

Dark, rain, fog curling serpentine and drifting from the road, a broad oblong moon through ragged clouds, car headlights white, car taillights red, the mine signs white, the skull and crossbones red, the stinging nettles, dark, the bridges over unseen rivers, engines howling in the distance, small, shrill, somewhere in the night, a dog; and soon enough, the villages.

Not a house: total, gaping, shellshocked devastation.  White obliterated walls.  Tall trees and matted brush engulfing wreckage in the headlights.  Me standing like a ghost in the bright light and the rain.  A dark memorial beside the road.  White signs, NE PRILAZITE; a single roadside window flickering and muffled with the blue flare of a television, howling like a bellows from a dark barn, desolation.  Signs and maps for towns that have been dead and gutted by the worms for sixteen years.

Days and days and days and days.

Owen

[64 days, 1,859 km / 1,155 mi]

Next: Across Europe, vol. 6: The bear goes over the mountain

 

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