I dream of a female friend with cancer, who shrinks and shrivels to a few centimetres wide. I pick her up and carry her around, weightless. It takes over a week to realise this is a dream about Dad.
Secretly, I shorten my plan further: just use the Iranian visa already in my passport, then head back overland to Dad. I could be two months, three max.
15th October, 2011
It’s 6:30pm and growing dark rapidly by the time I leave Brighton with “M25 East” scribbled on a piece of white cardboard. Still, Pawel has stopped before I’ve even reached my hitchhiking spot. He’s from Czech Republic and has hitched a lot himself, but he’s pretty impressed when I tell him I’m on my way to Iran. He takes me past his turning and drops me on a big lay-by on the A23. It’s now pitch black other than a barrage of white headlights rushing toward and past me. I try to adjust my facial expression from pure fear into happy hitchhiker.
Two lifts later I’m with a family. She used to hitch around Devon a lot; he’s travelled North Africa. We’re miles out of their way, but they insist on taking me all the way to Clacket Lane Services, where I arrive two hours early.
Finally, Lisa appears, grinning, wearing that silk scarf the woman gave her in Izmir what seems like aeons ago. She’s hitched down from Occupy London, just beginning today. “Why are we leaving now? It’s just starting to get interesting here!” she says as we march to the petrol station across the forecourt. Two huge trucks with IR number-plates grind to a halt in front of us: our lift has arrived. The rear truck’s door swings open and a man climbs down to hug Lisa. This is Peter, and this is the fourth time he’s taken Lisa over the Channel. Peter’s friend is John, another Irish trucker. The guys banter as they boil a kettle and make us tea. We get talked through an Irish sitcom – “Dya see that ther’? Thaht’s just exahctly what it’s loike in Ireland!” – while waiting to board the train.
At the Tunnel the little bus comes to collect us from the big train where we parked the trucks to the much smaller passenger carriage at the front. There are precisely three women on the train, including Lisa and myself.
Now in France, our eyes are drooping. Lisa and I climb up to the bed above the window and try to catch naps in the pauses between jolts and the radio banter between Peter and John.
We wake up in Belgium. We drink nuclear coffee from plastic cups in a service station disguised as a spaceship, mostly empty. Our heads nod involuntarily to 80s synth’ pop. Everything is surreal at 5am.
The sun lifts lazily from the horizon, perhaps as tired as me. Still nobody going our way. We have befriended an unlucky Bulgarian with a broken-down car. He’s been here all night too. We help push his car, but the ignition just won’t catch. It’s Sunday, everything’s closed and he’s skint. The woman working the counter is lovely. She traipses the aisles looking for out-of-date food to give us and calls her mechanic friend to help the Bulgarian. He’s having a bad week. He tells me he moved to Hannover in search of work, but like everywhere these days, there’s none to be found. He met a man who said he was also from Bulgaria and persuaded him to do a job: take four men over the Channel into England – only they weren’t really from Bulgaria, but Albania. Their ID was faked. He was charged with trafficking and spent twenty-four hours in jail. Eventually they released him, but without payment for the job he can’t afford to get home.
The cashier woman’s friend gets the car started and now the Bulgarian just needs petrol money. Our choice is this: leave him here, donate some money, or go with him to Hannover and loan the cash until we get there, when his friend can pay us back.
It’s early afternoon when we reach Hannover. We wait a long time for the friend, but finally a cheeky young chap with an East-European swagger arrives and climbs in the front of the car – his car, actually. He hands me two €20 notes as he gets in: my loan repaid. We drive to meet more men with similar swaggers. One with a green-black tear-drop tattoo under his left eye smiles at us. “Zdrastei!” I tell them: my only Bulgarian – unless you count political slogans. They buy us coffee in a bar. “The car is broken-broken”, our friend tells us, “or I would drive you to Bulgaria.” Damn. They drive us to a service station on the road to Magdeburg instead. We’re going a very different route than expected.
Lisa and I have asked a lot of people where they’re going. As is frequent in service stations, a coach has arrived, making our task slightly more difficult. We ask two guys who say they’re going to Magdeburg, but have to speak to their driver. We watch them join the crowd outside the coach and sigh, but then they wave us over. Outside the coach, we’re surrounded by a small crowd. We feel a little like zoo exhibits, but climb onboard and accept bottles of beer, settling down to watch the surreal in-coach movie in German. “So, who are you people?” I ask the man. “We are like a choir”, he says, “but not exactly like a choir.” “Oh.”
Now we’re looking for a lift to Halle. Nobody’s going our way. It’s getting late. “How about if we just go to Berlin, eat Yellow Sunshine burgers and sleep in a proper bed at my friend’s house?” I only understand half of what Lisa just said, but it sounds like heaven. “Err, yeah!?”
Minutes later we’re with Stefan in his car, hurtling down the autobahn in the direction of Germany’s capital. Stefan will quickly become one of my favourite hitching lifts and will join us for dinner at Lisa’s friend’s house the following night. It’s nice to have a pit stop, and Yellow Sunshine burgers are pretty amazing, even if their fries are crappy.
A text message from Gill: Your dad is well, he’s very tired after a weeks’ worth of radiation therapy which is 2 b expected & he has a sore throat, but I don’t know if there is a connection. He has slowed up considerably but is just as belligerent! Will try 2 email u next sat. Take care.
A close friend of Lisa’s in Germany just broke up with her boyfriend. Lisa hitches to the South to be with her, while I carry on towards Turkey. Off-track and alone, my plans are suddenly thrown wide open. I can do anything I like. I decide to go to Prague, I’ve never been there before. I send two couch requests and am stunned to receive a text message an hour later, saying: Of course you can stay. I read your blog. You are my heroine!
Prague. I’m sitting in a main square watching crowds of tourists and horse-drawn carriages weave around one another. Narrow twisting cobbled streets spill off in all directions. Grand Gothic spires rise up behind tall narrow buildings decorated in what looks like gold leaf and cake icing. I sit on a bench beside a wizard and a small boy, not at all surprised to see them there.
Pavel is right about the hitching spot: I get a lift from the motorway slip-road in ten frosty minutes. The man is going to Brno: a great head-start. He doesn’t speak any English, so we mostly sit in silence. He makes one attempt to touch my hands and another my leg, both under the pretext of seeing how cold I am. When I get out he makes kissy-kissy noises as I shut the door in his face. I leave him in the car-park and go in search of Slovakian trucks.
At a service station on the outskirts of Budapest, my phone rings. It’s Gill. “Now, you don’t need to come back, but I thought you ought to know. He’s had another seizure. He’s in hospital. Can you hear me?” I don’t even know where exactly I am. A traffic jam is backing up alongside the service station, blocking off the entrance to all but the most persistent of motorists. A family of Roma musicians are inside eating dinner. They invite me to join them, offer a lift. But I’m going through Serbia, not Romania. I consider turning back. There’s an airport in Budapest – there isn’t one in Novi Sad, where my friend Aleksa lives. I wrap my coat tighter against the wind and peer through darkness at a truck just turning in. As he gets out, I paste a smile on my face – “Excuse me, speak English? Do you go to Szeged?” No, but he can put me on the right road. This guy knows all the back routes. He takes me out of the traffic jam, away down bumpy pot-holed roads.
Aleksa meets me at an abandoned truck stop on the outskirts of Novi Sad. He drives me home to his parents’ house, where I last stayed a year ago. We have plenty to catch up on, but I’ve hitched over 800km in one day, across three national borders. I’m pretty knackered.
My phone beeps in the morning as soon as I turn it on – Please call me urgently. My time with Aleksa largely consists of several hours on his internet hunting for flights.
I get the all-night train from Novi Sad back to Budapest. In my small carriage are a long-ginger-haired Polish guy I met on the platform and a man with small square glasses, light brown skin and a gently impassioned manner in whatever he’s explaining – “tourismy faschismy Serbski schmismay”, is how it sounds to me. There’s a feeling of warmth and intimacy in our carriage as we chug through darkened Serbia. The men quietly discuss and I write, somehow soothed by the incomprehension of their discussion.
In Budapest I take a taxi 22km to the airport. No flights for eight years, then two in a month. This time they have my vegan “meal”.
At Gatwick train station, my visa card declines. I have a spare card to an old account, but the pin eludes me. I call Gill. It’s an extra £50 to pay over the phone, making it £170 total. She says she doesn’t have her card with her. I pay the last of my English money to get to Victoria station, then Euston, messaging friends on the way: I need to find an open bank branch. A friend calls with directions to two. I run through streets, phone to ear – they’re both closed. The train leaves in ten minutes. I peg it through the station to the front of the ticket queue. The cashier tells me to get to the back. “My dad’s dying in Scotland! You have to help me! I have to get on that train!” She won’t let Mango pay over the phone at all – not even for £50 extra. He has to cycle to Manchester station and buy the ticket there under something called a ‘silk arrangement’ before tickets can be issued in London. I miss the train and pay 50p for the privilege of unrestrained sobbing in a toilet cubicle. Back at the queue, I wait for the man to call Manchester and arrange the tickets and realise I’ve left my backpack in the toilet. I run back – past the same people in the same queues, tears streaking my face. It’s still there. Breathe.
Another half hour to arrange the tickets. I almost miss another train. They charge Mango even more than the quote at Gatwick. Tanya and Eddie, on holiday on the Isle of Wight, somehow find an open bank branch within minutes and deposit money into my account. My friends are beautiful and I love every one of them. I am going to Glasgow.
The hospital is far. From Glasgow it’s another train on an obscure line, fifty minutes to the next one. My heart beats faster the closer I get to Dad. I get a different train on an adjacent track, jump off and into a taxi over the road. “Please hurry”, I tell him, “my dad is dying.” He nods.
Inverclyde Hospital looms dark on the horizon. It looks more like a Bond villain’s headquarters. Dad is sitting up in bed. “Ohh – you didn’t have to do this!” he says as I drop my pack by the door. Gill sits next to his bed, holding a bloated white hand. I hug my sister, nod at my brother. “Didn’t I?” He’s hooked up to a machine, dripping somebody else’s blood into him. His head looks like a peeled potato with glasses assembled on it by a five-year old. “Your father’s looking a lot better – a lot better – than he did yesterday”, says Gill.
How strange to be back in Novi Sad. It’s always strange to return somewhere on this journey, as though the time in-between is wiped out, a dream. Did I really go to Belgrade? Where is Sam?
I arrive at Aleksa’s house around 4pm, sunburnt and exhausted from a stressful journey. The journey itself is a whole other story, involving two kittens. I won’t go into it now, but I am writing the story for publication elsewhere, so maybe I’ll put a link in here later.
I’m greeted by Aleksa’s father, who tells me Aleksa is out for the night, but that I am to make myself at home. I’m looking forward to seeing Aleksa again, but also grateful for some alone time.
The following morning he arrives home and we have a big catch-up chat. We don’t get to hang out as much as last time, but I’m happy to be with a friend and we still get in lots of interesting conversations. It’s impossible not to with Aleksa.
Having already been to Novi Sad I feel less pressure about getting out and seeing things, which means I have time to properly recover from my recent traveling adventures. One thing I do want to do though, is go back to CK13. I see they are showing a film Thursday night: Mozart and the Whale.
I sit at the back and begin speaking with the man next to me, who’s from Montenegro. He’s telling me how much he liked England when he visited Dorset, but then suddenly comes out with loads of extremely racist comments about how we have “a big problem with the Pakis and the Blacks though”. I can’t believe it and can only stare at him, open mouthed. So he starts trying to reassure me, emphasizing that he means “FOREIGNERS, you know, THE BLACKS. Not the British people, they’re lovely.” “You’re really racsist” is all I can think to say, agape. To back up his theory, he goes on to tell me about an English man he met in montenegro who agreed with him and reliably informed him that black people go around in gangs beating people with bottles. I tell him I’m not going to listen to his bullshit anymore. I get up and take my bag over to the bar where I order another cup of tea and tell the guy working there that the man next to me is full of racist bullshit. He tells me he will find me a seat somewhere else. “Well yes, I can do that myself, but don’t you have a safer spaces policy here?” He’s never heard of such a thing, of course. But when I try to explain he just mutters something about freedom of speech. “Freedom of speech? But doesn’t Antifa meet here? What do they think about freedom of speech?” “Yes, this is the Antifa place.” Blimey! Sometimes I miss England, especially The Cowley Club. It’s not like we’d be chasing him out of the door with sticks, but for sure he would have been asked to leave, or at least people would collectively challenge his racism.
On Friday I go to meet up with another Couchsurfer. Mattieu is another nomadic-type from France who’s also bimbling around Eastern Europe. He’s delayed leaving for a day so we can meet up and will hitch to Croatia tomorrow. For once wish I didn’t have my bike with me so we could travel together. I even think about leaving her with Aleksa, but the thought of hitching with my panniers is a bit much. Next time. Mattieu and I swap travel tales and addresses of places we might like to visit. I take him to the vegan cafe and he dumpsters a bag of onions. So it is possible to dumpster dive in Serbia – he has been doing it regularly with some degree of success it seems.
The night before leaving I cook dinner for Aleksa and his dad, who it appears don’t eat so well since Aleksa’s mother moved out. I make them a good hearty English meal of veggie bangers and mash with onion gravy, which they have heard of from the song Gravy Train, but never eaten before. Aleksa says he learned all his English from music, which seems crazy since his English is almost perfect.
He rides out with me some of the way on the day I leave. It’s a sad goodbye, but I’m sure we’ll meet again someday.
I am awoken at 6am by the rising temperature. It’s going to be a hot one. This is good news for most of the people in Novi Sad, but not for us. Aleksa’s dad greets us merrily in the morning; “Do you know what day it is today?” “Um…Mayday?” “It’s barbeque day!” “Oh.” Former soviet bloc countries take 1st of May very seriously. It’s a public holiday and most shops are shut, but rather than having demos and parades, everyone just drives out to the countryside for a barbeque.
We load up our bikes, say goodbye to Aleksa, his father and mother (who has just reappeared) and set off for Belgrade. We were planning on cycling the last 90km in one day, but already the sun is scorching at 9am and we are readjusting the plan in our heads to take out the hottest part of the day to rest and include lots of peach juice and ice lolly stops along the way. We ride our bikes onto the main road and into the heavy “Barbeque Day” traffic, all honking and waving at us rather unhelpfully as they churn their exhaust fumes out into the air around us. We climb up and up and up and up and up and up a seemingly never-ending slope. The book calls this “The Holy Mountain”, but we shout other, ruder names at it as we huff and puff our way endlessly upwards in the sweltering heat.
By the time the midday heat is on us and we’re looking for shade, we’ve only done about 20km. We keep going until we see a purple Eurovelo detour sign saying “Dunav”, the Serbian name for the Danube. Excellent, yes, let’s have lunch by the river and wait for the sun to ease off a little.
What the sign doesn’t tell us is that the river may only be 5km away, but it’s 5km over a mountain. By the time we get there we are exhausted, sun-stroked and the river-side is rammed full of people barbecuing meat and playing Eurotrash and happy hardcore from big speakers in the backs of their cars. There’s also an obnoxious smell coming from somewhere around the nearby cargo-boats and there’s a motorway bridge above us. Still, we’re here now. We’re both in bad moods from the heat and the climb, but the ever-friendly Serbians insist on coming over one or two at a time and drunkenly practising their English.
With the city-folk all over the countryside, we’re worried there’ll be nowhere to stealth camp and are toying with the idea of getting a train to Belgrade. Sam is worried about letting herself down, but nervous about wild camping tonight. I don’t mind either way. My brain isn’t functioning properly and when I try to think about anything it just goes “yeah, sure, whatever”. I try explaining this to Sam, but she just thinks I’m being unhelpful. We decide to ride back to Beška, where we took the diversion. We’ll be back on our route and there’s a train station too.
By the time we get back to that purple sign it’s gone 6pm and time we’d normally start looking for a camping spot. We’re only a third of the way to Belgrade, which reminds us that Maja from CS had invited us to join her in her country house one third of the way to Belgrade. She replies to a text message saying we are welcome, but her house is back in Branstol, up the Holy Mountain. There’s no way we’re cycling back up there again, but we are next to that train station.. how about we get the train to Maja’s, then get the train back to the same spot in the morning and continue where we left off? This seems like a good middle way, so we head to the train station.
The woman in the ticket office is smiling at me, but all she can say in English is “one o’clock… One o’clock”, while holding up her index finger. It’s 7 o’clock now. I ask about the train to Belgrade and get the same response. I go outside and join Sam on a bench. A man with white hair and a moustache comes over and speaks to us in German. “No, no, we’re English.” People often assume we’re German. “My colleague will be here in five minutes”, he says, “ten minutes maximum. Very good English he speak”. Well, we have no better ideas, we might as well wait ten minutes and see what happens.
Suddenly we are surrounded by bicycles. The man with the moustache reappears with another man wearing cycling chorts and a helmet and they both shake our hands. There will be a train to Belgrade in forty minutes. I ask how much it is. “No charge, no charge,” says moustache. He hands us his business card. It says Cycling Association of Belgrade. President.
By some super-synchronisity, we have arrived at this station just in time to meet the Cycling Association returning from their weekly excursion. They have two whole coaches booked on the train with plenty of space for bikes and they have spare tickets for us. The train will be a Romantika – an old-fashioned train.
“You come, drink beer with us. Leave bikes here, no problem, no problem…” “But”, I say, looking at my watch, “won’t the train be here in ten minutes?” “Yes, we get train together, no problem, leave luggage here, is no problem.” And they whisk us away to a bar.
The train is late of course, but when it arrives it really is an old-fashioned train – how I imagine the Orient Express might look. The bikes are hung from hooks in one of the carriages and they clank and jangle together as we bump and chug our way towards Belgrade. Everyone is very interested in us. Where have we come from? Where are we going to? How long has it taken us? Where will we stay in Belgrade?
On that note, I send a message to our CS host telling him we’re on our way. It turns out he lives not in Belgrade, but Pancevo, a small town 16km away from the capital. We will need to get a train there, but the last one is 23:00. Our train isn’t due in until 22:30 and is already running very late. It will also be at a different station, across town. The men around us, eager to be of help, begin phoning train companies and even our host, to find out if there might be another train or an easier way for us. To appease them, Sam and I say we will get a youth hostel for the night, then travel to Pancevo in the morning. “Well then, you must be our guest tonight in the cycling hotel!” declares the moustachioed president, or “chief” as the others call him. What can we say but “Thank you!”
Our train arrives and we are given a cycling escort to the Hotel Dom, where we are met by Branko from the Cycling Association. Her speaks to the woman at the desk and declares we will have a four bed room so there is space for the bikes. We are only to use two of the beds though, he warns us. Our room has an en-suite with a shower and though it’s only a two star hotel, it’s a lot more than Sam and I are used to.
Now they want to take us out for another beer, so we leave bikes and luggage in the room and head down the road to a bar. We’re joined by a south African man, living in London, but staying for now in Serbia. He’s working with the cycling association and another organisation that helps countries rebuild their cycling infrastructure after a conflict. He’s very charismatic and we’re all chatting away until Sam and I are almost asleep. We head back to our hotel, laughing despite our exhaustion at the crazy day we’ve had.
In the morning there’s a knock on our door and a voice informs us that a man is here. I find Branko waiting in the foyer. Breakfast is included in our hotel price and he’s keen to see us eat some, despite our protests and attempted explanation of veganism. In the end I have some bread and jam and a coffee. Sam has an apple and some mint tea, much to the amusement of the waitress. Finally we are told we can get our own muesli from upstairs and eat it at the table. The waitress and Branko both seem to think we’re nuts.
After breakfast Branko wants to show us the city before we get our train to Pancevo. Buses are free today because it’s still a public holiday, so we leave our bikes and stuff at the hotel and get a bus into the centre. Branko walks us up to the fortress at Kalemegdan Park, pointing out all of the big buildings and establishments on the way. He seems keen to show us how modern and developed his city is. Little does he know that what we really want to see are the older damaged buildings, graffiti and punks. Branko says yes to everything we ask him. “Do you like this city?” “Yes” “Have you heard of couchsurfing?” “Yes.” “Where do we get our train?” “Yes.”
It’s time to go. Branko insists on walking us to the train station, buying our tickets, waiting with us and carrying our fully loaded bikes down to the platform and up the steps onto the train when it arrives. He really won’t let us do anything for ourselves and despite the nice sentiment, it’s becoming rather tiring. Still, the Cycling Association have all been really kind and we say profuse thank you’s as we wave goodbye.