Be careful what you wish for, friends. Not only might you get it, but it could come with strings attached. In my case this involved getting a chance to speak with Serbian people who did not know English. It would be fun, I thought, to see how well I could get by with Slovene and the few Serbianisms I had picked up so far. And to some extent it was fun, but I’m already getting ahead of myself with this story and will now go back to the beginning.
I arrived in Niš, a lovely, southern Serbian city, with precious little notion of what to do there. Lonely Planet had a couple of ideas for day trips, but nothing that set my heart a-thumping. Fortunately, Tatjana, the owner of the Happy Hostel where I spent two nights, gave me one of those all-around-town pocket guides that had some more options. The first thing that caught my eye was the description of a place called Đavolja Varoš, or ‘Devil City’. The accompanying photo showed towering rock structures that were eerily skinny. Each was topped with a massive stone that seemed far too large to be supported by such a tall and slim structure. The entire thing reminded me of the sand after a rain in Suriname. Sometimes there were slopes where the sand would wash away and leave tiny little pillars that had been protected from the raindrops by the pebbles that sat on top. I supposed that the same principle was at work in Đavolja Varoš, only on a much slower and grander scale.
Tatjana asked me a bit later what I was planning to do in Niš, and I immediately expressed my enthusiasm for Đavolja Varoš. ‘Oh, I think that is too far,’ she said. ‘You should go to Niška Banja instead.’ Listen to the locals, Peter. They know what they’re talking about. But I did not listen. My heart was set on Đavolja Varoš. I did go to Niška Banja, which is where I saw snails gettin’ busy, but I had not given up on the Devil City. The next day I went to the tourist office to ask how to get there and was told to go by bus to the town of Prolom Banja, six kilometers away from Đavolja Varoš, and take a taxi. Simple enough. I went to the bus station to inquire. That is when I got my wish granted the first time.
The lady at the information desk did not speak English. Awesome. She also had no intention of being patient with me when I literally could not hear her through the glass partition. Clearly, I would have had trouble with the Serbian, but she could have been speaking Sesotho behind that thing and I wouldn’t have known any different. No amount of, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,’ would crack that hard exterior, and finding out information about how to get to Prolom Banja and back was like trying to interview a rock about what really happened on the grassy knoll that day in November. Okay, it wasn’t that bad, and I did find out about a couple of times to go to Prolom Banja, but I had a bus to catch the following evening to Skopje and could not seem to find out if I would be able to get back in time to make it.
Back I went to tourist information, where I was greeted by two unfamiliar faces. The people who had helped me before had gone to lunch. No bother, I would just ask these folks. I explained that I wanted to go to Đavolja Varoš via Prolom Banja and wondered if they knew how regularly the buses ran back to Niš. ‘Prolom Banja?’ they asked. ‘No, no, no. You want to go to Kuršumlja. They have buses to Đavolja Varoš.’ Wonderful news! I was also informed that there were regular buses between Niš and Kuršumlja, so I should have no trouble getting back by five in the evening for a bus to Skopje. Back to the bus station to buy my tickets, where an incredibly kind and patient woman, who also spoke no English, helped me buy all of them. She even gave me an open ticket back to Niš so that I wouldn’t have to worry about how long I stayed at Đavolja Varoš. When did I want to leave? As early as possible! 4:15am you say? How about the next one!
So I bought my ticket for 6am and headed back to my hostel. It was at this point that Vane, the guy from Macedonia (you know what, you should just read Niš: A Place at the Table, my post from a couple of days ago, because the names and references are going to keep coming), called me over to sit down for some coffee. I talked with him, Tatjana and Milan for a while, and eventually I announced that I was going to Đavolja Varoš early the following morning. Tatjana made an ‘oh really?’ face, and Vane asked what that was. ‘Kameni,’ Milan said. ‘Yes, rocks,’ I agreed. ‘Big rocks.’ ‘You are going to see big rocks?’ Vane asked, a bit confused. ‘Yes, well, they look really cool, and…I don’t know, it should be interesting.’ ‘You want to see big rocks?’ Milan broke in. ‘Go to fortress. We have big rocks there. Lots of them.’ His face was one big grin. Oh, you cheeky Slavs.
I awoke the next morning at 5:15 and almost didn’t get out of bed. I know myself well, though, and 33 years has taught me to build in some fail safes if I plan on getting up early. It was a really good thing that I had bought my tickets the day before because without that motivation I might have just gone right back to sleep. I considered it even then, but I was also excited for the adventure ahead of me. There were an embarrassing number of people out on the street at 5:30 in the morning. Embarrassing for me, that is. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been awake that early, much less outside and active. I was reminded of a t-shirt I’d seen a guy wearing the day before that said, ‘I’m out of bed and dressed, what more do you want from me?’ My sentiments exactly, random t-shirt wearing guy.
So I make it to the bus station with a few minutes to spare, and I’m super proud of myself. It was going to be an awesome day, I just knew it. The view on the ride there would be gorgeous and memorable, and then I’d have Đavolja Varoš to feast my eyes upon. I fell asleep twenty minutes outside of Niš and spent the rest of the two hour bus ride snoozing. I didn’t even wake up when the driver was yelling at me that we had arrived. This is probably because he was yelling the Serbian equivalent of ‘girl’. Alright, I’ve got long hair, I get it a lot. But alright, almost there! I go to the ticket counter for my next wish-come-true of no-English bus station attendants and ask for a ticket to Đavolja Varoš. Again, the glass partition makes it look like she’s just miming words to me. I can barely hear anything she’s saying, but it’s enough to understand that there’s no bus. No bus today? Nope. There’s no bus from Kuršumlja to Đavolja Varoš. It doesn’t exist. Thanks, information center!
Any other inquiries are futile as the woman has decided that I am some kind of Neanderthal that has managed to group complex sounds into words, albeit useless words. She will no longer speak to me. Around this time a random guy comes up who speaks English, and I am happy. I am not ashamed to speak my native language to this man because I am now lost and don’t know what to do. I see Đavolja Varoš fading away and wonder if I shouldn’t just get on the next bus back to Niš. But now there is this guy, and I have some hope. He tells me that there is a bus that goes near to Đavolja Varoš, and I can take it and walk the three kilometers from there. Now to figure out how to get back. He tells me that he will translate (apparently he speaks glass-distorted Serbian), and I ask him to ask her when the buses go back to Niš. He does so and she throws up her hands and says, ‘9!’ So maybe it wasn’t just me, or maybe, by aligning himself with a lower being, he had shown that he, too, was unworthy of her time. Okay, so 9 was about an hour from then. There was no way that was going to work. I ask for some later times and we end up with an exasperated sigh and a ‘10!’ Great, and the next one? ‘10:45!’ And now I see where this is going. I figure I can manage to get a bus back that leaves before two in the afternoon without any trouble, so Skopje should be alright.
My new friend has now gone, and there is some kind of administrator helping me now. No English, but patience she has. Why is it that I always get the rough one first? Is it so that the nice one will seem all the sweeter? I would ponder this many times that day. So this woman is helping me and I have her ask the driver when the bus comes back to Kuršumlja. 5:15? Ain’t gonna work. Bummer. The woman then suggests I try a taxi. It’s 35 km to Đavolja Varoš (as opposed to the 6 km from Prolom Banja, I think to myself, but that train has sailed, as Austin Powers once said), and it will cost around €15 for a driver to take me there and back. That’s a lot of money, but I have no other option. I agree and she takes me to the taxi stand. She explains what I want to the driver, who speaks so strangely that I think even she has trouble understanding him. She tells me good luck, and I go toward his cab.
Through various gestures and grunts we two audible mutes manage to relate our expectations and how they differ, by which I mean that he gave me to understand how it was going to be. He would not wait for me there, and it would cost €15 one way. ‘But the lady said that that was the price round trip.’ ‘That’s what the lady said!’ Suddenly his Serbian is clear as day. Alright, guy, I’ll do it because you’ve got me over a barrel and you know it. I get in his cab and he writes down that one way will be €15, and if he waits and takes me back it will be €20 total. Oh! Well, that’s better. I relax a bit, but only until I start paying attention to how this man drives. We are in some hilly country with bendy roads, and he is driving in the left lane (hint: this is not one of those countries where people actually do drive on the left). Now, he manages to swerve back into the right lane when cars come, but somehow he drifts back over to the left as soon as they’re gone. And we’re not talking the country-style, riding-the-middle kind of driving my grandfather taught me on the farm. This is full-on, British-rules, left-lane-driving. It occurred to me only then that the man’s slurred speech and ruddy complexion might have been an earlier clue. Was he drunk? I’ll never know. I will continue to tell myself that he was driving that way for Queen and country.
We arrived at Đavolja Varoš (I realize that I’m switching between past and present tense, but I like it for this story), and I was very happy to be getting out of this man’s car. He indicated that he would not wait. I don’t really know why I was surprised. I asked how I would get back and he explained that there were buses that left from Đavolja Varoš fairly regularly. This made little sense. There were also, he said, frequent taxis that serviced the park (for that’s where I was, I saw then–in a national park. It is also, by the way, a Tentative World Heritage Site, and it placed 77th in the New 7 Wonders of Nature campaign in 2011. They are very proud of this. A big ‘77th!’ banner hangs at the entrance to Đavolja Varoš). Again, I was confused. And if all else failed and I found nothing (this should have tipped me off), here was his card and I could call him. And then he shook my hand and erased all of my doubt.
Just what is it about a handshake that makes us trust people? It doesn’t always, of course, and the effect can wear off fast, but often times it makes a big difference. This man shook my hand and looked into my eyes, and for a brief moment I believed him. I let him drive away, holding his card in my hand, and I thought about what a nice guy he was. I then reflected on my situation and decided he had left me stranded with nothing but his telephone number, essentially ensuring that I would call him for a ride when I inevitably found no other way back. I resolved at that moment not to use his card, no matter what circumstances prevailed, and headed into the park.
If you happen to visit Đavolja Varoš, you should know that there is a substantial portion of it that is nothing like what you expect. There are strange sculptures that line the stream leading back into the forest, and perilous-looking wooden bridges cross that stream to lead you through a kind of village. This, I presume, is why they call it Devil City to begin with. Either that, or the name lent itself to some enterprising soul’s dream to create a village to go with the name. Either way, admission was free (or at least it was for me that day), so I’m not sure just how enterprising that soul was. The sellers of handicrafts were the only potential benefactors of the entire venture that I could identify.
So I made my way through this village, which was cute and not nearly as kitschy as I feared when I first saw where things were going. In fact, I think I would have quite enjoyed having a look around at everything if I wasn’t secretly terrified that I was in the wrong damned place. The picture I had seen of Đavolja Varoš had a distinctly desert feel to it, and all around me was lush forest. Granted, the sign had told me, in Serbian and English, that I had arrived at my intended destination, but I was beginning to get the creeping feeling that I had just spent a lot of money for a village tour. Here is the Devil’s Water. Here is the old mine. Here is the Red Well. The devil take all of this crap, I want to see really tall, spookily skinny rock formations! And then, as I turned yet another corner into more forest, I spied a sign that I could just as easily have looked right past, and on this sign appeared to be the outline of a family of prairie dogs. I’m not even kidding you, that’s exactly what it looked like. Prairie dogs and an arrow. This way to the prairie dog family. Had I not seen those very outlines on a website I had happened to look at the night before, I made have thrown a rock of my own at that sign. As it happened, I was near to kissing it.
I took the indicated path, and after a few more twists and turns I saw Đavolja Varoš ahead of me. It truly was impressive, but it would have taken a heavenly host to make me see it at that moment. It was rocks. Big rocks, to be sure. Tall and freakishly skinny, the Screech of rock formations, but they were just rocks. There were wooden stairs and platforms reaching up all around them to offer better looks, as well as views of the mountains and valleys that surrounded us, and I began to climb these steps with clenched teeth, willing myself to love these rocks, to be in awe of them, but it just wasn’t happening.
There was no one else there. This would thrill me later, but at the moment I took it as a sign that every other human in the world was smarter than me. I made myself climb step after step, eating these really strange-tasting pretzel sticks I had purchased in Novi Sad (they were kind of sweet and salty at the same time…not my bag, baby) and knowing that I was going to be thirsty later. Didn’t I bring water? Hah, I never learn that lesson!
I reached one platform and took a few perfunctory pictures of these stone creatures. I had gotten a vision of immense erect penises lifting up into the sky, and after that I had trouble shaking it. Great, I had come all this way and spent all of this money to see a bunch of stony pricks. I went down these stairs and up another set, determined to walk up to every platform there. In fact, as I realized that there was no one else around and nothing blocking the steps from the ground where the rocks were, I decided that I would have to walk among these giants before I left.
By the last set of steps I had softened somewhat in my attitude toward these rocks, and as I reached the uppermost platform I had a clear view of the other side of the mountain. Below were more of these rock formations, ones I had not seen pictures of, and somehow these broke through my bad attitude and made me smile. They were smaller, or at least they appeared so from my vantage point, but they were amazing. Even more incredible, when I at last turned around and headed back down the stairs, I found that the first of them that I had seen looked somehow more majestic. They towered above me, oblivious to my judgments, and simply were. It was awesome. And then I climbed up and touched one. It was rough going, and I nearly cut my hand on the sharp rocks that jutted out of the nearest one as I caught myself from falling (it would not have been a far fall, no worries, everyone), but I was there, among the stones. Suddenly, I was reminded of the TV series ‘Children of the Stones’ that I had seen on Nickelodeon as a kid. It had scared the bejeezus out of me back then (something about how, I don’t know, children got turned into stones and had to wait for years to be turned back, if ever? Something like that). I made a quick and respectful departure.
But my day was not over, and my tale is not finished. I made my way back through the infinitely more charming village and out to the entrance to the park, and when I asked a couple selling knick knacks about buses back to Kuršumlja, I received the expected laugh. Of course there were no buses. No taxis either. I told them my story, and the woman suggested I call the guy whose number I had. No dice, lady. The man said there was nothing for it but to hitch, and I agreed. Two right turns and I would hit the highway, he said. Alrighty then. The fact that I was 3 km from the nearest road and another 6 km from the highway did not deter me. I saw one car for the first 3 km. It did not stop. But I stuck out my thumb, and I count that as hitchhiking. I’m right there with you, Courtney!
I made it to the (somewhat) main road and saw another car that had no interest in me, and as I walked along the seemingly endless curves of pavement, I began to wonder if I would end up missing my bus to Skopje after all. It was 11:30 by then. I had been walking for about an hour and had seen two cars. I had at least another four or five kilometers to go until the highway, and who knew if I would have any luck there. And then I heard a motor and stuck out my hopeful thumb. It was a taxi. My distal appendage sank along with my heart, but I left it out there and the cab rolled to a stop ten feet ahead of me. I explained my situation, and the man took pity on me. He also seemed extremely angry about this other cab driver, which was very satisfying. I feigned ignorance when he asked where he could find him, though. ‘Why go there?’ I thought. ‘Just be happy you got a ride.’ The driver at first declined my offer for compensation, but after I insisted, he took 200 dinars, the equivalent of about €2. Wow, and what had I paid to get out there?
The helpful lady greeted me at the bus station and told me there was a bus leaving in five minutes to head back to Niš. Good news. I told her I already had a ticket and showed it to her, to which she responded that it wasn’t valid. Bad news. It was a return ticket, she said, so I needed to show the ticket I had traveled there on. Was that all? Curious rule, but no problem. I’ve got it right…on the floor of the bus where I fell asleep. This awesome lady took pity on me once again. The bus had pulled up by this time and was filling with people. She took my ticket and shooed me on to grab a seat before they were all taken and went back to the office to work her magic. As near as I can figure from the note she wrote on the back of it, she had called the bus station in Niš to get details of the ticket sale and confirmed it with some kind of tracking number. It’s a wonder that Serbs don’t have a space program for the way they track their buses. Just before we pulled off, she jumped on the bus and handed me my ticket. It would have been just as well to forget it, though, because no one ever bothered to look at it.
I made it back to Niš with no problems and even had time to hang out with Milan and Vane at the hostel for a bit. It was Milan’s birthday that day, and I completely forgot to congratulate him. If you read this, Milan, then happy belated birthday! I related my experience to two other Americans (I shall call them Moses and Miriam, after Miriam’s pet turtles back home-only one of which, Miriam, is still with us…) and fumed about the jacked up price for the cab fare. Vane, good man that he is, interjected and asked again how much I had paid. For 35 km it was probably a fair price, he told me. Well, that did make me feel a little bit better about it.
As I rode the bus down to Skopje and bid Serbia goodbye, I reflected a bit on my last day there. It had been a difficult one, to put it lightly. I’d spent more money than I’d wanted to, gotten up earlier than I had in a very long time, and spent the morning arguing, worrying, walking and hitching. Was it worth it, I wondered to myself? The question I asked was actually two, of course. Was it worth all of that money and trouble to go to Đavolja Varoš? I’m not really sure. I think it’s definitely worth some money and trouble, but I’d go to Prolom Banja and cab it from there. Or you know what? Rent a car. But if the question is about whether the experience I had and what I’d learned during the craziness of that day was worth all of that money and trouble, I’d say definitely. It almost always is.