“Salt! Salt! I require a kilo of salt immediately! I got a skinned Baltic fox in the cart and its starting to stink! Sausage sausage waterfall wrench!” Life gets you funny looks when youˇre cycling a shopping cart with dead crow wings flapping off the side, wreaking of the worlds strongest vinegar being pounded solely because it was accidentally purchased, and only knowing the words for “sausage”, “waterfall” and “wrench”.
No no, that makes it sound like all fun-and-games here on Balkan back-roads- the reality of the situation is anything but. What began with an arbitrary glance at a map and a “yeah yeah sure- Istanbul – I bet I could get there…” has been pushed up by millions of tons of sheer techtonic force to form the most brutally challenging thing Ive ever done. And where other bike tourers are cutting their toothbrushes down for the micro-grams, in 100 degree heat Ive taken a different strategy, packing a library of books I dont have time to read, enough jackets, long underwear and wool socks to make it over the Himilayas in winter, the gallon of accident vinegar and a basket full of rocks used to throw at wild dogs who hate the cart more than anything theyve ever seen- all encased in an extra 50 lbs of steel shopping cart, towed faithfully by the proud Bicci Camero- cracked dysfunctional shifter, squeeky breakpads, mismatched handles, flappy chain guard, a slow leak I cant find… First-generation mountain bike fit for a king. I shift with my foot. But sometimes pulling slowly, slowly, ever so slowly up steep green hillsides finds a rumble-tumbling of an ancient Soviet tractor loaded sky-high with fresh cut hay puttering up behind- a flash of inspiration and a sketched ride. And sometimes when the driver finally notices his hitchhiking flea of a sweaty cyclist hanging hanging on for dear life its cause enough to dig out the homebrew “tequila” and celebrate on mountain high before faithfully towing said cyclist another ten glorious kilometers. And sometimes, trudging up a steep mountain pass, nearly in tears trying to fuel it all on a $5 a day budget I cant even really afford, I look down to find a run-over Gucci purse, no ID, no address, just a spare car key and $500 cash.
And then comes Sarajevo. Calls to prayer bouncing through cobblestone walkways teaming with young European party-goers. Beautifully brickworked masonry at home in Berlin, Rome, London: red tiled roofs screaming the mysteries of the Middle East, and under it all the tanner hawks soft goat hides. Burkas, babies and bulletholes- a powerful, visceral smashing point of East-West, a literal line on the ground where Syrillic signage marks Turkish hookah smoke wafting through cathedrals fit for any European capital, mosques and orthedox onions dotting the sky where Franz Ferdinand was shot sparking World War One. A city under siege: for three-and-a-half years the valley capital was ringed by Europes third largest army, reigning down artillery, more than 300 grenades a day and sniping any man, woman or child caught going about their business. Make no mistake: Serbia is the enemy, and “the wars not over, just frozen in time.” The mass graves stretching up into the hills give new weight to childhood memories of NPR on Moms kitchen radio. Sarajevo. And through it all a wild soundtrack- melodic mixing somewhere between Europes ubiquitous pop garbage and the drony/dancy Persian/Bollywood beats of a New York taxi cab. Something unique- something special. Something Balkan. Im not sure what I was expecting but it sure wasnt this. Sarajevo is a heart throb, and Bosnia is something totally different.
And now back on the bike.