I ride 90km in one day, alone, through a storm. I stop several times to put on my raincoat, take it off, show a woman my passport before the Croatian border and a man afterwards. I stop for lunch in a park in Ilok and again in Mohovo when the storm passes directly overhead.
Terrified, I’m peddling as fast as I can – not really very fast at all given the furious wind that blows against me. Lightning strikes to my left and right, several bolts at once sometimes and with mere seconds between them. Thunder rumbles and crashes overhead. My knuckles are white from gripping the handlebars. It’s a while before the rain starts, but when it does it quickly becomes a downpour. Finally I reach a small town and dive under the first shelter I see: a covered stall selling plastic toys by the roadside. The man quickly rearranges things under the small tarpaulin so there’s a bit more space for me and my bike and we pass the time conversing as best we can in his broken English and drawing on a bit of paper to fill the gaps in vocabulary while we wait for the storm to subside.
The storm passes, the rain stops and suddenly the stall is surrounded by smiling children. I wave goodbye and peddle onwards to the next steep climb. Aleksa, who cycled with me the first bit of the way in Novi Sad, had warned me about these climbs. He wasn’t joking. Up, down, up, down, up, up, up and doooooooowwwwwn. I have to get off and push the bike on at least four occasions.
Finally I reach Vukovar, but on presenting the piece of paper on which I have written my host’s address to the man in the petrol station, he tells me I still have another 8km to go. I continue on in the direction he pointed, stopping every now and then to ask directions and check I’m still headed the right way and keeping a lookout for other cyclists as my host said he would cycle out to meet me after he finishes work. I reach his neighborhood with still no sign of him. A knock on the door is answered by his brother, who says he has gone out to meet me but will call and tell him I have already arrived.
My hosts here in Vukovar are Slaviša and his brother, who tells me to call him Mick. They are both vegetarian and grow a lot of their own food in the garden, which runs from the back of the house down to a small river. As well as being vegetarian, Slaviša eats mostly local food, which he gets using a sort of unofficial LETS system with the local people. His diet is also increasingly raw. He eats raw grains, which is something I didn’t even know you could do, but which are delicious the way he prepares them, soaked overnight and mixed with walnuts and carob powder. All of this is very inspiring, and is certainly not a usual way of living in Croatia. Slaviša has also been involved in some animal rights campaign work. There are newspaper cutting in his room showing him at The Running of the Nudes in Pamplona and working on a street stall here in Vukovar as part of a local group he set up. It must be very strange doing a street stall at a place where absolutely everybody knows you, but he says people were quite receptive.
Mick is interesting too. His English isn’t as good as Slaviša’s, but he tells me he once lived in Sunderland in England for two months. He flew there to claim asylum after serving as a soldier in the Serbian army. His experiences were a lot better than most of the asylum seeking migrants I have spoken to, but he decided to come back in the end.
Their house is ugly on the outside, but beautiful on the inside. Both brothers are carpenters and have been rebuilding the house themselves after it was almost completely destroyed during the war. The outside, like around half of the buildings in Vukovar, is riddled with bullet holes and the balconies have been ripped off. It’s times like this I wish I had my camera-phone, but then, people are staring at me enough as it is without me going around taking pictures of their war-torn town.
Being born and raised in England I am constantly forced to face my own utter ignorance of geographical and historical matters. This is one of those times. Everyone is talking about “the war” and I have to go look on Wikipedia to figure out which war they’re referring to. For those who share my ignorance, here’s a breakdown: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Croatian_War_of_Independence
All of the tourist attractions in Vukovar are about the war. Here is the hospital where they dragged out the wounded and slaughtered them. Here is the field where the massacre took place. Here is the cemetary, where the people are buried. Here is the road where the tanks were destroyed. Here is the water tower, preserved as it was during the war, a symbol of the town’s suffering…
Actually everything here is a symbol of the town’s suffering. Vukovar is the first and only town in Europe to have been completely destroyed since World War II and not very much of it has been repaired it seems. A once thriving city with a population of almost 85,000 now has barely 30,000. The tourist pamphlets read more like a desperate call out for “the hearts of healthy keen and educated young people” to come and rebuild the city. It’s all very sad. But why just leave it to rot like this? If Vukovar is really the “Hero Town” as they say, don’t it’s people and infrastructure deserve to move on?