Surviving the Balkans

Josephine Ris

17 October 2016

Although David talked about #sunshine and #happiness in his last blog, we have not done a lot of actual reporting on our activities. We have been on the road for more than 5 weeks and to produce a story about everything we have seen and done during this time would be as horrible for you to read as it would be for me to write. I will share with you some thoughts and events which hopefully will give you an idea of what our journey has been like, so far.

About driving
As some of you might know, I only got my driving license about half a year ago. I even thought I did not pass my exam and when my examiner congratulated me, I thought he was trying to be funny. He told me, while grinning, there was going to be a traffic situation in which I would be unpleasantly surprised, but despite this forecast, I still passed. Not the most reassuring comment, I tell you.

By the time we were ready to leave, my only experience was driving in my instructor’s car and a few times in my mum’s car, both of which are completely different from a jeep-style, four by four Defender which was made before the turn of the century.  Before we bought Dox, we had gone to visit Gert, the previous owner, a few times and during one of these visits David insisted I would try driving it off-road. I almost started crying. I did not feel like testing my newly acquired “skills” in this very big, tank-like, vehicle with the current owner sitting next to me. 

At this point you might start to worry about David’s safety, so I should probably mention that I like to exaggerate things, as I believe moderation has no part in storytelling. I certainly had to get used to driving Dox, but all in all, it goes quite well, unless you believe parking is also driving… Anyway, as most people say, you only really learn how to drive after acquiring your license.

While driving through Europe I figured out pretty soon that my own driving skills were the least of my worries. This became most clear in Romania, where people do not believe in speed limitations. This is unless one is warned by other drivers that a police car is near, when suddenly everyone slows down tremendously. Traffic signs in general are to be ignored, especially those that forbid overtaking other cars. Romanians prefer to overtake in sharp bends, with little or no view on the traffic coming from the opposite direction, or precisely when oncoming traffic is near, but they might just make it in time.

Waking up at a gasstation after spending the night in the car because we could not find a good camping spot.

In Turkey, the driving style is less risky, but people make all the more use of the horn. When waiting for the traffic light, people start honking their horns even before the light turns orange, let alone green. Horn honking can serve as a greeting,  an indication that the concerned car will start overtaking another, the announcement of newly wedded couple, as a rhythmic accompanying sound to the music one is playing or you might simply honk it when seeing foreigners.  Once you get used to these new meanings of honking, you will find your finger pushing that button just as happily as the Turks do (ask David for testimonials).

I guess that all of these interesting traffic situations are just a tip of the iceberg considering the countries to come, most notably India, so we have exciting times ahead of us!

A minor set-back has been the high prices of gasoline. We figured once we left western Europe, the prices would only decline the further we got, but in Serbia, Romania and especially Turkey, gasoline is expensive! As much as we like Turkey, from a financial stand point it would be better to go to Iran as soon as possible. 

“I think that in the back of our minds there was also the idea that Eastern Europe was less exciting, beautiful, exotic or impressive than Asia. Of course this is complete nonsense and a rather ugly prejudice, and pretty soon we realized that it would be a shame to race past all these wonderful places

As for the route, David has found a free, offline navigation app that we happily use (MAPS.ME). Sometimes too happily, when we ignore road signs and follow the navigation, but it means no arguments over map reading! As it is a free application, however, there are not many options to customize the use of it. For instance: it seems to go for the shortest route, rather than the fastest route and we cannot change this. If you combine this with the fact that it is not entirely up to date on new routes, it means we occasionally end up in weird locations. Instead of taking us to the highway that turns out to be only 1 km further, we are led to dirt or mud roads, or narrow alleys, where more than often we receive surprised looks from locals. Not only do we drive in a beautiful safari-style car with Dutch licence plate, we also take the most hidden backstreets, where tourists probably do not go very often.

About traveling Europe
When we planned our trip, we calculated two weeks to get to Turkey. We figured that it was quite likely we would visit countries within the European Union on other trips or holidays, so we did not want to “waste” our time there during this trip. I think that in the back of our minds there was also the idea that (Eastern) Europe was less exciting, beautiful, exotic or impressive than Asia. Of course this is complete nonsense and a rather ugly prejudice, and pretty soon we realized that it would be a shame to race past all these wonderful places in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The more we saw, read and heard, the more we wanted to explore these countries. The Balkans had gotten us in her charm, more than we had expected. Eventually we slowed down a bit, but still got to Turkey in two and a half weeks. One of the reasons for this was that at night, temperatures were dropping fairly quickly. Not that strange, if you consider it was the end of September, but I think we are not the only people who do not enjoy camping that much when temperatures drop below 18 degrees. We were hoping Turkish nights would be more warmer (they are).

One of the detours in Europe was made by accident. I was looking at the map to see where the road would take us next and suddenly noticed it would take us to Serbia. We had not included Serbia in our “list of countries we were going to visit” before and I wondered why. One of my dear former colleagues is Serbian and I was excited about the prospect of visiting her country. If she was a good example of what Serbian people are like, I was sure we were going to have a good time there. I told David, but he said he did not think we would cross Serbia. I was pretty convinced we would and thus convinced him as well. I send my colleague, Dusanka, a message to inform her about the good news and ask her whether she had any advise and we got on with the day. Later, David checked the navigation again and of course it turned out I made a mistake. Our “normal” route was not going to take us via Serbia at all. In the mean time, Dusanka had replied and send us so many promising pictures and tips that it would have been a shame not the check it out. It turned out to be one of the high-lights of our stay in Europe. Serbia is an incredibly beautiful country and people are most welcoming. We ended up being invited to stay with Dusanka’s family, as you have probably read in David’s previous blog, and had a great time there. We then followed the Danube/Dunav down to the Romanian border, where we also spend a few days enjoying the beautiful surroundings. Serbians have proven to us to be very friendly, open and fun loving people and we also found that most Serbians speak English pretty well, this in contrary to people in the surrounding countries. There is still a lot we did not see and we have already decide to go back, but the same goes for most Eastern European countries we went through quickly.

In Serbia we almost adopted two incredibly cute, small puppies we found along the road. As you might have read in the “about us” section, we at first wanted to take a dog along with us, but were not able to eventually. Finding these two adorable but sadly abandoned puppies made it all the more tempting to take them with us. Of course, we could not take them and although it was a bit heart breaking to leave them behind, stray cats and dogs are ubiquitous in Eastern Europe and, although less, in Turkey as well. 

David B. trying to fix our old gascooker (RIP).

About cooking
My mother had given us the gas cooker we used to take with us on our family’s camping holidays, which took place ages ago. Although a bit old, it was very convenient, because it used gasoline, rather than gas, which is widely available. Two days into are trip, the thing started to give us trouble. It would not go on at all for a few days, then suddenly work again, albeit very slowly. Getting a pan of water to boil would take about 20 minutes, let alone actually cooking the concerned food. After another few days of the cooker not going on at all (sorry mum!), we felt like we’d had enough salad dinners and decided to buy a new cooker in Prague. We visited about twelve outdoors shops and despite this astounding number – Czech people are apparently very fond of the outdoors – finding a two pit stove was not very easy. We eventually found one but then spend another week eating salads as we did not manage to buy the right gas tank. When we finally also bought the gas, I was initially very happy as the new cooker works like greased lightning. My enthusiasm soon faded as I am now facing the other side of the medal: where before it took me ages to cook something, the new cooker has only one option, namely mother-burning hot. I had to develop a new kind of “stress-cooking” where I turn off the fire every other minute in order not to burn every thing that touches the pan. I am not complaining though, I am very happy to be able to cook our food again!

About time
You would think we have a lot of spare time. I thought we would have a lot of spare time. We do have a lot of time, but then again we do not. We drive a lot, and we sleep a lot. We also walk a lot, read a lot and spend a lot of time figuring out where we go next. We do some shopping, some cooking and we pack and unpack our stuff daily or every other day, including pitching up or taking down our tent. We pass a lot of beautiful areas where there is plenty to see or to do and we find we skip a lot due to a lack of time. Nine months seems like a lot of time, but as it turns out, I could probably spend 18 months doing the trip we are now doing. In this respect, there is one thing that bothers me: David and I want to make some sort of a documentary, but thus far we have not found enough time to properly work on it. Making a film requires a lot of research and drawing up a plan and, once you have that, you have to make time to actually shoot it. It is not like you take the camera along wherever you are going, as it is quite big, valuable and fragile. You can also not go about shooting everything along the way, as this will result in a surplus of undefined material. In short, we struggle with it. I hope we will find more time and also some genius ideas to make this documentary reality.

Ok, more than enough words again, hopefully you managed to get to the end. I will go and have a dive in the ocean here at camping Paradies now.

Güle güle!