Greetings from Kosovo! This is the first time I’ve ever been to a country that no one else in my acquaintance has been to, so I’ll do my best to write frequently and lengthily about our experiences here.
Our journey from Livno to Prištine was long and adventurous. Part of the length comes from political rather than geographic reasons – since Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo, and because Serbia is our next destination, we had to drive into Serbia first in order to get our passports stamped. If you try to enter Serbia from Kosovo and don’t already have a Serbian stamp, the Serbs consider you to have entered the country illegally. So, in order to avoid that hassle, we drove east through Bosnia into Serbia and then down into Kosovo rather than just south through Bosnia.
We were up at 5 a.m. for a scheduled departure of 5:30. A few last-minute errands and forgotten items delayed us until 5:55, but soon enough we were coasting through the ever-beautiful Bosnian countryside en route to Sarajevo.
I would estimate that approximately four hours of our trip yesterday were spent on winding roads through mountains/large hills. I had no idea that this part of the world was so hilly, but that seems to be most of Bosnia and the part of Serbia that I’ve seen! This made for some more demanding driving on Scott’s part and some lovely scenery for those of us who were awake and keen to take pictures. It was also misty and rainy all day, so we saw lots of mountaintops covered in fog that lent an even more ethereal feel to the area.
We spent about five minutes within the limits of Sarajevo; I didn’t see enough to make any judgments about the city. I can say that the area around Sarajevo looked pretty war-torn; it seemed like there was one gutted, abandoned, or half-finished house for every two that were inhabited. It’s very strange to see so many buildings like that. Many of them, and also a good number of the ones in which people do actually live, seem to be made of cinderblock with no outer layer. It must get very cold living in those in the winter.
Once we were past Sarajevo, we started to see more and more signs in Cyrillic as well as some Serbian flags. We had seen a few signs in Roman and Cyrillic around Mostar, but as we got closer to the Serbian border, we encountered whole villages where the signs were only in Cyrillic. I plan to dedicate some time today to learning that alphabet – it’s SO hard to remember it and to rewire my brain to think of a different sound for the letters that look the same.
Around 11:30 we experienced what I have now dubbed, and what has been collectively adopted, as The Sheep Incident.
We were driving through a small village just past Foča when we came around a bend and saw some sheep about 40 meters away standing right on the edge of the road. Now, it’s useful to understand that we are driving in a British van, so the driver’s seat is on the right side of the van. I was sitting right behind Scott, also on the right side and on the same side as the sheep.
A series of things happened very quickly, as is often the case with these things. A couple of seconds after the sheep came into view, Hannah (sitting up front next to Scott) said “watch out for the sheep.” At almost that exact moment, the sheep chose, for whatever reason, to come into the road. There was absolutely no time to do anything. We weren’t going TOO fast, but we were going fast enough that slamming on the brakes or swerving wasn’t an option. There were maybe two seconds in between when the sheep moved and when we got to that part of the road. There was a sickening, loud series of bumps, Martha and I screamed, and moments later Scott had pulled over. He hopped out immediately with Danijel; the rest of us sat stunned for a bit. Dani and Lib had been sleeping and didn’t know what had happened; those of us who had seen it were trying to figure out whether we could stand to look or not.
To make a long story short, we stayed on the side of the road for about an hour. Two sheep died, and a third was injured enough that the owners included it in the casualties. After some debate, we decided not to call the police and instead to negotiate an amount to pay and move on. We had to backtrack to Foča because the radiator had been punctured in the impact and was leaking fluid. “Betty” the van suffered a few other cosmetic injuries but in general came out relatively unscathed. We were all fine too, which is impressive. Scott did a tremendous job of leading and staying cool in a very challenging situation.
Fortunately, the men at the repair shop were able to drop what they were doing to help us. We got underway again in about two hours. I think Saint Christopher helped us out!
The remaining drive through Bosnia grew increasingly rural and Serb-populated. At one point we passed a giant memorial to Tito, complete with a statue and 10-meter long letters spelling out his name. We finally arrived at the tiny border with Serbia around 5.
Every border experience is interesting, and this was no exception. First we laughed at one of the guardrails, which was wrapped in duct tape – clearly someone had driven through it at one point. Next, since we were in the middle of nowhere with no idea where there might next be a place to stop, a few of us ladies got out to find a toilet. Squatters exist in this rural part of the Balkans, and the one at the border officially qualifies as the worst I’ve used… I’ll leave it at that.
Passports freshly stamped, we continued into Serbia and went through another set of winding roads through mountains and extremely small, impoverished towns. There seemed to be no one around for miles, but we saw lots of livestock (including sheep) roaming the hills and fields. We eventually stopped at a gas station for some dinner (salami, bread, and cheese – the official World at Play sandwich) and another squat toilet experience, then we continued on to a larger, crazy town called Novo Pizaro, which we renamed Novo Bizarro. The main road through town was very narrow, filled with people, and went in the most crooked path imaginable. Some in the van commented that it reminded them of Southeast Asia.
Night fell while we were unscrambling our way through Novo Bizzaro. We passed some lakes that I’m sure are quite beautiful in the daytime. Houses started to dwindle as we approached the border with Kosovo, so it was very dark, and we encountered two trucks that had just stopped in our lane, so it was once again not the most relaxing of drives for Scott. (At this point we’d been on the road for about 14 hours.)
There is a curious bit of no-man’s land between where Serbia ends and Kosovo begins. The border out of Serbia is m favorite so far; the guard was a hot young guy around all of our ages who was hilarious and teased us about running a stop sign (true) and then made us open the back, at which point he jokingly asked if we had any drugs (no). Anyway, we got through with no problems and with another round of squats, this time in a field (I did not participate). Ten minutes later we reached the border into Kosovo. They took the time to enter our passports into a computer, so we had time to look around at a gas tank left by the UN and a truck full of cows that pulled up next to us.
Upon entering Kosovo, we passed a large sign reminding UN and NATO workers that this was the border and not to cross. This is also my first time being in a place with an active international peacekeeping presence; I am curious to see what else we’ll encounter.
We continued driving through sparse countryside for about half an hour, then suddenly there were stores, giant wedding receptions (that looked SO FUN), and huge produce stands lining the road. One of our partners met us about 40 minutes outside Prištine, so we had an escort the rest of the way.
Prištine is MUCH larger than we had imagined, and it’s also more posh – we haven’t driven through much, but the area where we’re staying has lots of upscale shops that I never expected in a place that so immediately evokes an image of war. I am looking forward to driving through more of the city today.
That’s all for now – time for our first session!