(Continued from the last entry)
After a little sob in the toilets I drag myself out to the road and take up my position with thumb held high. I’m feeling little hope, a lot of sadness, tiredness and perhaps loneliness too, though it’s only been five minutes. An hour ticks by and I’m so deflated I’m actually trying to work out how much a train might cost and feeling like a total sell-out.
Then a van stops with two guys. I get into the third seat and balance my backpack on my lap. It’s another of those “helpful” lifts, giving me a ride to a better spot – only this one really is helpful. They take me past several signs that actually have the names of places on the piece of cardboard I’m carrying strapped to my pack and drop me on the road to Kalatina. This, they say, is the Turkish truck route.
Sure enough, a Turkish trucker stops before I’ve even put my pack down. “Beograd?” I ask. He nods. Great! But it’s better than that. After some introductions I ask where he’s going: “Belgium”!
I tell him I’m on my way back to England. He doesn’t speak any English, but I understand when he says with lot of gesturing that I can ride with him to Belgium, then he can find a colleague to take me to London. I nod furiously. We both smile and shake hands – it’s a deal. This proves my theory: the longer the wait, the better the ride.
Hassan and I don’t speak the same language, but we have plenty in common. We both like Turkish coffee and Turkish music, especially while driving through mountains. We do not like borders or border police – especially not Bulgarian ones who are allegedly the most corrupt in Europe. I see him handing packets of cigarettes and who knows what else over at each of the various checkpoints. A man resembling a bulldog orders me out of the cab and snarls questions at me. “Where are you going? Where have you been? What are you doing with him?” I spiel off a list of countries that spring to mind and tell him I’m a hitchhiker – “autostop” – I mime with my thumb. He nods. “Go!” he tells me. I get back in the truck and wait for the bribery to finish.
Eventually we can cross the border and Hassan tells me to wait. He gets out and I watch fascinated through the drive-side mirror as all the Turkish drivers gather together and drink coffee on a fold-down table on the outside of one of the trucks. After a few minutes Hassan comes back and hands me a coffee, then goes back to finish his. It’s clearly a man’s thing.
Time to go. We both cheer as we pass the “Republic of Serbia” sign. The music is turned up, the windows come down. Serbia – woohoo! Something else we have in common: we both like Serbia.
Hassan asks if I’m hungry. Well, I kind of am. He pulls into a Turkish truckers restaurant. I know the awkward embarrassing part is coming. Never have I valued my Vegan Passport as much as now. I find the Serbian page and hand it to the bemused waiter. His frown deepens with each sentence and by the second paragraph he’s called the chef. Fortunately, the chef speaks English, but they’re still not getting it. He asks twice if I’d like cheese, then comes back out of the kitchen to ask first if I eat onions, then to check about salt. At least they’re taking it seriously. I end up with boiled potatoes, carrots and pasta with raw onion on the side and a tomato and cucumber salad. I’m delighted. They all think I’m crazy, especially Hassan who’s busy reading the Turkish page.
The next time we stop it’s just outside Belgrade. I get some sly yoga in behind a service station and return to the truck forty-five minutes later as requested. One hour, fifteen minutes and five alarm rings later I’m forced to prod Hassan awake. “Why didn’t you wake me?” is what I know he’s telling me in Turkish. I did! Lots of times! We hit the road again.
Sophia to Brussels is a three day drive. My theory is that if I can get through the first night without any hassle from my driver then I can relax the rest of the time. I ask Hassan where he’ll sleep and when he answers the top bunk I give him a choice: I can sleep on the bottom bunk or I can go outside in my tent. First he wants to share, but I put my foot down and he leaves me be on my bottom bunk where I sleep relatively well despite his snoring.
The border crossings into Croatia and Slovenia are long queues, bribery and lots of paperwork. At each one, the border guard speaks to me in English, I suppose to check my passport is real. “So, this is hitch-hiking?” asks the man in Slovenia. “How did you guess?” I ask with a bemused smile. “Because you are with him,” he laughs and indicates Hassan, who hasn’t a clue what’s going on. “He doesn’t speak English,” I say to explain his confusion, “but we’re getting along just fine.” Getting into Slovenia is a relief. We’re back in the E.U. and now the borders will be open until I cross The Channel – no more bribery and paperwork.
We spend our second night in South Austria. Unfortunatley, the first night lulled me into a false sense of security. “Please Madam, no sex” - he insists he just wants to cuddle and maybe a little kiss. I am firm and state no repeatedly. “I go bottom bunk, you go top.” He puts his arm around me. I remove it. He’s more childishly annoying than physically threatening, but I’m tired and I want to go to bed in peace. I fetch the Turkish-English dictionary we’ve been using to communicate, find a word and point to it: “Respect.” He nods. “No!” I say. He holds up his hands, wishes me goodnight and turns off the light. It seems I said the magic word.
By the third day I’m drinking tea with the men at the little fold-down table. We’ve parked for the night near Wels in South Germany, next to a tiny petrol station near a big freight train depot. The Turkish man operating the gas station gives me the key to the shower, then joins us for breakfast: bread, olives, tomatoes, peppers, onions, plenty of oil, salt, paprika and of course, copious amounts of tea. It’s today Hassan tells me the news: he’s found someone to take me to England. We are to meet him in a service station later. I’m overjoyed, but Hassan seems almost regretful. This means losing his passenger. He seems to have grown quite fond of me and spends our last couple of hours looking forlorn and trying to persuade me to give him a proper kiss goodbye. When it becomes clear that isn’t going to work, he spends the final half hour demanding that I refuse to kiss or have sex with his friend, the new driver. I promise.
I swap trucks somewhere in South Germany. Hassan mimes tears on his face and points to words in his Turkish-English dictionary, like “sentimental”, “affectionate”, “love”, etc. I tell him not to be silly, but of course he doesn’t understand me. I point to the Turkish word for “annoying” and he apologises.
My new driver Bahadir is married and has a three year old son back in Turkey, which pleases me immensely. He points proudly to a picture of a baby just behind his seat. We park for the night near Brussels. He buys us some beers and we listen to music and share photos in the cab. Just one night with this driver and he’s not pushy at all. I feel quite safe and sleep well. He doesn’t even snore.
On our second day we drive through Calais. Guilt seeps through me and I almost panic and open the door. I should get out. I should just get out now. How can I go through Calais and not get out? I decide that if I see a single person I recognise it will be a sign and I’ll just get out. We pass by the dunes where the old Hazara Jungle was. I strain my neck to see. A year since I was last here and now I don’t know where the migrant camps are. I know all the old ones have been destroyed. I don’t know what to say to Bahadir about my obvious discomfort and neck-craning. “Arkadash” I tell him – the Turkish word I learned for friend. “Arkadash?” He’s obviously confused. What, you saw a friend, here?
I see nobody. We drive into the ferry terminal and queue for the boat. Another Turkish driver comes over to say hi while we’re waiting. The past day we’ve seen barely any other Turkish at all – driving in, through and out of many service stations looking in vain for the Turkish plates, eating our lunch alone. Bahadir is an excellent cook. He has a big gas stove, pots, pans and kettles in his side compartment, just like Hassan. All the Turkish truckers have them I think. They each have a box of tea glasses too. Hassan makes tea for us as we wait for the ferry. The kettle is boiled until a faint repetitive chinking begins to gather momentum.
Finally we’re on the boat. It’s the English boat and suddenly I’m surrounded by British accents. English – everyone’s speaking English! I can understand what they’re all saying! And my god, how they all moan about everything! I find it hilarious. I leave Bahadir and the other Turkish driver with our coffees and wander round the boat asking everyone where they’re going. I’m holding out for Clacket Lane Services on the M25 – a sure way to get a quick lift home.
I find my lift just as the white cliffs are looming and go out onto the tiny bit of deck you’re allowed on, although the view isn’t so great. Dover. What a sight. It’s been ten and a half months since I saw that view. I’m outrageously excited by it.
I grab my pack from the truck, hug Bahadir and bid him farewell. After a frantic search I find my lift and cram myself in with the others in the car, backpack on knee. I chat excitedly to them as we drive, buzzing from coffee, adrenaline and the old-newness of England. They drop me at Clacket Lane where I position myself by the entrance and ask everyone who passes if they might happen to be going to Brighton? Ten minutes later I’m in a car with a guy about my age who apparently thought hitchers were a myth. He drops me in Brighton and I walk that old familiar journey back to the flat…
As anticipated, Zagreb is a big European city with lots of expensive shops and tourist traps. I’s a big contrast to the Serbian cities I visited and there’s evidently a lot more money around. Pete and I find that suddenly we can’t afford things again. Internet is €3 an hour. After some hunting we find a place for €2.50, but it’s so slow it hardly works and the staff deny all knowledge of computers. People are less friendly elsewhere too and finding a free toilet proves impossible, even in the cafe where you have already bought a drink. Capitalism has a strong hold on Croatia it seems.
We find out about an eco-community in a village a couple of hours drive away and decide that will be better for us. We send an email but then decide to just go there anyway as who knows when they will check their email. We park up for a night in a forest on the way.
The people in Recycled Estate at Vukomeric are surprised to see us. There are not many people around and those who are seem very busy, but we still get a guided tour of the land they own before being left loitering around the kitchen area where we drink lots of fresh herbal tea and wait for people to stop for lunch. When they do we jump on the chance to help cook. Pete makes his now infamous potato pouffas and I make a salad with fresh leaves from their garden and the last of our wild garlic. I’m glad we stayed as more people arrive and we all sit together to eat around a large outdoor table. Now we get a chance to speak with people properly and find out more about their project and Croatia in general.
Nobody lives at the project yet, but a few people plan to eventually. Most people live in the city and come down to work over the weekends or during the week, depending on what other work they do. The land has been owned by the collective for a long time – I think they said 10 years! The way I understand it, the first group of people were very young and excited by the possibilities of the place, but didn’t know what they were doing. Eventually some of the energy diminished and people left the project, but then it gradually began to pick up again as new people came along and the remaining original people grew up and learned the skills they needed to look after the place.
Now they have acquired more land and people are taking on individual projects as well as joint projects in different sections. They also run training courses and other events regularly. We promise to keep in touch and plan on coming back this way to visit again after Hungary. We are also interested in some other eco-village projects in Istrija, a peninsula in the North-Western part of Croatia. We also learn that there are usually more people around at weekends, but some of them are staying in a protest camp in the centre of Zagreb. Well, this gives us an excuse to go back. We had heard of the protest, but after hearing no more about it had assumed it had finished. Now we find out it’s alive and kicking.
On returning to the city, we find a couchsurfing host who is active in feminist politics and one of the organisers of the annual Pride event. She lives in a shared house with some other smiley queers from various countries who are all very lovely and interesting. Our host tells us a little more about the protest site as well as about a squat social-centre near the city centre. We go to visit both, making our short stay in Zagreb quite a busy one.
Sadly the squat isn’t much to speak of. Maybe we came at a bad time. Like in Germany, this isn’t really a squat at all now as they have permission to use the building and pay some rent, but people still call it a squat, perhaps because it looks like one. At the time we visit in the early afternoon it’s occupied by a small group of drunk people sitting around telling offensive jokes. We stay for a small coffee, then leave.
The protest site is far more promising and I leave feeling excited and homesick. It has the smell of the UK Climate Camps about it – people occupying a street with sleeping bags, board games and a cheery atmosphere. We meet and chat to some people and bump into one of our friends from Vukomeric, who is pleased to see we found it ok.
The group who initiated the protest, Zelena Akcija (“Green Action”) have an office and a small centre around the corner. The group is more Friends of the Earth than Green Anarchist, but for some reason they have the best anarchist book library we’ve seen since leaving the UK. This is the kind of place we could both spend hours just reading, but we’ve decided to leave today to start driving north to Hungary.
Below is an article I have written for Schnews about the protest site in Zagreb:
Right to a City (or insert witty title here)
Protesters occupy a pedestrian street in Croatia’s capital and are demanding the mayor’s resignation.
Spirits were high when Schnews visited an assortment of students, NGO representatives, disgruntled residents and dreadlocked activists camping out on Varšavska, a pedestrian street in the centre of Zagreb. At the time of writing, the occupation is around two weeks old and is the latest tactic in a two and a half year campaign against a dodgy development by tycoon-owned HOTO Group. The development has the unconditional backing of city mayor Milan Bandić and was ok-ed by the Minister of Environmental Protection, Planning and Construction – unsurprising as she has shares in the construction company set to carry out the work.
This stage of the campaign began early on Monday 17th May as contractors erected a metal fence around Varšavska – a public space soon to be privatized and turned into an access ramp for the private investor’s underground car park. The entrance was blocked by activists in the morning, stopping any further work. At midday they were joined by several hundred city residents who hammered on the fence and eventually pulled it down and occupied the area. Now the fence itself is used by protestors to form a tent-like structure, over which they have draped clear tarpaulin. A long line of sleeping bags are neatly laid out inside. Activists are keen to stress the non-violent and alcohol-free nature of the space.
There is a huge amount of public support with local residents bringing food and hot drinks to support the occupation and protests have attracted numbers unheard of in Croatia. On May 20th, 4,000 people marched to Zagreb City Council demanding the resignation of Mayor Bandić over the dodgy plans. In an effort to encourage him to “pack his bags” and find a new job, protestors helpfully piled up suitcases outside the council building.
The site was previously occupied earlier this year using shipping containers. That occupation lasted 10 days but was evicted forcefully by riot police in the middle of the night with 23 arrests, out of which five were charged, none convicted. The real casualty was the trojan horse – a giant wooden structure built by activists and presented to the City Administration as a symbol of all swindles and deception related to the project. The horse was brutally broken apart using cranes in a two hour long eviction in the snow.
Complaints against the development include concerns about restricted emergency vehicle access, increased traffic and of course the loss of a well-loved hang-out area, several large trees and protected cultural heritage buildings in the old part of the city. There is now a belated investigation by the state anti-corruption office USKOK of potential criminal liability in issuing the permits for the construction of the “lifestyle” HOTO Centre, luxury flats and car park. This follows several months of corruption charges against Croatian politicians, in which the Vice President and Minister of Defense are still awaiting court decisions.
The protestors, gathering under the banner “Right to a City”, have vowed to continue their occupation of Varšavska for as long as is necessary to stop the project. They say, “this is not just about this street, this is a symbol of the fight against corruption in Croatia. The system is rotten”.
More information (in Croatian): http://pravonagrad.org
My Couchsurfing host in Osijek is Tatjana, who came up on my search for “vegetarians” (there aren’t many vegans or anarchists in Croatia). As I’m about to leave Vukovar I get an email from her confirming I can come, but saying I can only stay one night and she hopes I feel like “Saturday night going out” as she can’t leave couchsurfers alone in the house. Oh god, I really don’t. I think about trying to get a new host short notice but decide to just see what happens when I get there.
It’s not so far from Vukovar to Osijek – about 40km, and Slaviša cycles with me the first part of the way.
Tatjana has a friend staying too and there are also two French Round-the-World travelers staying for the night, so it’s a full house. The French guys don’t seem to want to go out any more than I do, but there isn’t much of a choice. We drive into the old part of town where there are lots of trendy bars. It looks a lot like any place in England, or anywhere else in Europe for that matter, on a Saturday night. Girls wearing not much, drunk guys leering at them, music, smoke and loud noise. Me and the French guys have one beer each while we’re waiting for the girls to get bored of dancing and talk about how much we hate places like this. I feel worse for them as they have to get up early the next morning and hitch. They are allegedly hitching around the world, but they don’t like the rain, so if it rains they get the train instead.
In the morning I have breakfast and do yoga and somehow get embroiled in a debate with Tatjana and her friend about the migrant situation in Calais. The two girls have sickeningly liberal views. Tatjana says that anyone can make whatever they want of their lives if they just put their mind to it. She says the best thing we can do for the migrants in Calais is to help them to “change their minds”, by which she means mindset. They are not really oppressed you see, they just think they are. She is a psychologist and I notice some NLP books on her bookshelf. I am reminded once again that one of the key parts of privilege is not seeing that you have it.
By some strange coincidence I unwittingly pick Tatjana’s brother and his partner as my next hosts in Osijek. Fortunately we have a lot more in common. Mili and Valent are also perfect hosts and spoil me rotten. I have a luxurious bed in the lounge, all to myself, with a vegan cookie bowl that magically refills when I’m not looking. Mili cooks the most wonderful food and leaves a seat laid at the table for me when she goes out with little notes saying what the ingredients are. They even let me watch an episode of Black Books on their widescreen TV and give me use of their spare laptop. I haven’t watched TV in years and it’s funny the things you start to miss when you’re away for a long time. We also share some good conversations of course and I know that these are people I will keep in touch with.
I stay a few days in pampered luxury and then Pete arrives to pick me up in the van. He has managed to make it across the Croatian-Hungarian border without a green card for the van, something he’s supposed to have for the insurance. The border guards are much more interested in pointing and laughing at the wood-burner in the back and a crowd of them gathers, each calling over the next highest in rank until finally a very officious looking man with lots of stars on his jacket waves him through. This is good news for me as I would have to cycle to the border to meet him otherwise and the weather is atrocious – it has rained for four days solid. I am pleased my cycling adventures are at an end for now, although I have loved it and learned a lot.
We decide to head to Zagreb before going back up to Hungary for the retreat – an “Outer Rushen” retreat with Keith Dowman – more on that later. On Mili and Valent’s recommendation we stop off for three nights on the way in a beautiful natural place called Jankovac, not so far from Osijek. It’s by far the most beautiful place we have wild parked yet and has woods, rivers, waterfalls, caves and lots of lovely walks. It’s right up in the mountains and although I can imagine it heaving with people on weekends and public holidays, we don’t see another soul outside the occasional cars or motorbikes passing through.
The weather is drizzly, but we don’t care. We spend a lot of time reading in the van and resting from our long respective journeys, snoozing, eating and going for walks. We get into foraging and gather elderflower, nettles and discover an abundance of wild garlic, which tastes amazing in sandwiches with miso and tomato. I wish I could identify more wild plants. Inspired by my stay with Slaviša in Vukovar, I’m also inspired to eat a lot more raw foods as part of my meals and have been experimenting with raw vegetable salads. I also discover it’s possible to make baked potatoes in the woodburner by keeping the fire mostly to one side and the potatoes stacked up on the other. It’s a delicate balance but seems quite successful. It takes about an hour, or an hour and a quarter if you want them really soft. I’m preparing to start a recipe page on this blog soon with some of the recipes I have leaned from people while traveling.
Pictures of Jankovac –>here<–