White Rock school teacher – and avid traveller – Audrey Painter shares a summer adventure that began with an invitation from a former student.
(First in a three-part series)
Special to Peace Arch News
I had to fend off smugglers on a train in Hungary, got attacked by young boys in Macedonia, visited Dracula’s Castle in Romania and spoke to survivors of the Sarajevo siege.
This entire adventure started with a conversation with a former student of mine.
“I am going home for the summer. It will be to where I was born – a small village in Serbia. Would you like to come?”
“Yes. Oh, of course. I would love to come,” I said, thinking I will have to pick a good time to tell my husband that I will be away for yet another summer in some faraway country.
“Good. You can meet my grandmother. You will love it in Mokrin.”
Marvelous travels start with simple conversations such as this one. It was February 2010. I bought a return ticket to Belgrade and took the world atlas to find the city on a map.
I knew approximately where Serbia was, but I wanted to know more about the neighbouring countries. I was delighted that they were Bosnia, Romania, Hungary and Croatia. Bulgaria and Macedonia were also near.
I bought The Lonely Planet for Eastern Europe.
I was going to spend the summer in (and around) Serbia.
• • •
I had met Kristina Golic when she was a Grade 9 student in my mathematics class at Semiahmoo Secondary.
We were both immigrants to Canada, she from Serbia and I from South Africa.
We both spoke English as a second language, and we stuck to our homeland traditions.
I met Kristina’s mother, Zorica, at a parent-teacher interview and saw one of the first photos of Mila, the new baby sister to Kristina and her two younger brothers.
Years passed. Kristina went to university, and we talked occasionally, as students and their former teachers do.
Then, on that marvelous day in February, she invited me to meet her grandmother in northern Serbia.
• • •
I arrived in Belgrade one Sunday night in June.
I had my instructions written in my notebook, as Zorica, Kristina and Mila had arrived the week before. I had to take a bus to Mokrin, without speaking a word of Serbian, at night. The family was to meet me at the bus stop in Kikinda – a larger town close to Mokrin – and would drive me home.
These plans sound easy, if you are well-rested and in your hometown. After a exhausting flight from Vancouver via London to Belgrade, I was petrified. Kikinda was far.
On the Lonely Planet map, Mokrin did not exist, and Kikinda was a little dot near Romania.
I bought a bus ticket and took a seat in the middle of the bus. I tried to blend – to look relaxed and Serbian. This meant I did not open my mouth and gave fake smiles to friendly passengers.
It was pitch dark in rural Serbia as we drove north. At first, I was afraid, then scared, and then, after more than two hours in a dark bus, I was terrified.
Nobody spoke English, and all those awful ‘what if?” questions popped up in my mind. What if: someone robbed me? I ended up in Hungary? Kristina and family did not wait in Kikinda? This was the wrong bus? What if someone abducted me from this small country in Eastern Europe and sold me for my organs?
(Jetlagged, at 10 at night, I have a vivid imagination.)
In Kikinda, of course, Kristina and her aunt awaited me. We drove home to the quaint village of Mokrin where my adventures began.
• • •
Serbia was my base, and I traveled with Kristina to Hungary by train, where we had to fend off real smugglers in our compartment, and where Kristina had her mother’s passport instead of her own – stories for another day.
After that, I traveled by myself to Bosnia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. It was by train, bus, plane, taxi and on foot.
I collected stories, music and memories.
At times, in the Balkan countries and Eastern Europe, I became exhausted, terrified and teary.
More often, though, I was in awe on all these paths through these countries, on roads less traveled – and certainly not by solo women travellers.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference – Robert Frost.
NEXT EDITION: Smugglers on a train.