On the May Day holiday - that oh-so-socialistic day for The Workers - I travelled to Bosnia with fifteen other Macedonians to whitewater raft on the Tara River. The entire experience played like a 'Balkan Greatest Hits', in that I found myself muttering under my breath "Only in the Balkans" or "This is so Balkan" or "I might die this very moment" on numerous occasions.
We left Friday morning at 4 in the morning. The minibus was stocked with roughly four gallons of alcohol per person for a weekend-long trip, and a specially made series of turbo-folk mix tapes which would allow for 24 hours of non-interrupted arm waving and karaoke. Somebody had also thoughtfully brought along a drum. It was a long, long ride. We passed through Kosovo relatively quickly, but entered Montenegro in a snowstorm. It's often jokes that Montenegro - country of about 500,000 people sandwiched between Croatia, Bosnia, and Albania on the Adriatic coast - would be the largest country in Europe if somebody flattened it out. It took us around 9 hours to travel through a country smaller than Macedonia.
It was spectacularly beautiful, however - unbelievable mountains, isolated lakes, hidden monasteries and the like. We arrived at the border with Bosnia in the mid-afternoon. Well, sort of.
Bosnia (officially Bosnia and Herzegovinia, 'BiH') isn't really a functioning country in any sense. It was the site of fighting and attrocities following the breakup of Yugoslavia, and has been administered by international bodies ever since. The area where we stayed was actually the 'Republika Srbska', a de facto autonomous state within Bosnia populated by ethnic Serbs. It's complicated, trust me. Lots of passport stamps.
(At the Rafting Camp in Bosnia, on the Tara River)
We made it through the border checkpoints, and when we arrived at the rafting camp, we were greeted with Turkish coffee and slivovitz, the Serbian variety of rakija made from plums. Since we weren't rafting until Saturday, there was nothing left to do but TURBOFOLK.
Saturday morning, it was time for rafting. I really can't express how ice-blue the water was, because I've never seen anything like it. The picture doesn't do the water justice.
This was the first weekend of the season, so the rapids were great, and the water was ice cold - 8 degrees Celsius, which I think is close to absolute zero in our reckoning. We had to cross the border back into Montenegro every morning, and then we would raft back in to Bosnia. This sounds kind of cool, but it actually meant we had to wait for 2 hours at the Montenegrin border, as tried to determine exactly what we might be smuggling in our wetsuits.
Now, I'm not an avid whitewater rafter, so maybe the following are actually normal or expected. Please let me know if I'm mistaken in assuming the following are unusual/amusing/dangerous:
1. Each boat has a waterproof container in the middle, where everyone keeps their cameras. . . and cigarettes and plastic bottles of rakija. We stopped about every half hour for a smoke break. The bottles of rakija were continually being passed around, compared, and traded with other passing boats.
2. At one point, as we were approaching some mighty rapids, a Serbian woman started opening this camera bucket, endangering our expensive electronics. She said she wanted to "really enjoy the rapids", which meant lighting a cigarette right beforehand, holding it above her head as we crashed through the waves, and whooping.
3. During a quiet spell, a Serbian man who looked like Liam Neeson dove into the 8 degree C water and started backstroking along the side of the raft. His friend then threw him a plastic two liter bottle of rakija, which he casually sipped as he floated in this liquid ice.
4. Every mountain stream that flows into the river is safe for drinking. Unfortunately, I find this unusual.
It was a really specatcular experience. The water and the mountains were beautiful, the food was delicious and fresh from the village, and there was great company all around.
Let the summer begin, I suppose.