As I rode a bus from Novi Sad in the north of Serbia to Niš in the south, I stared out the window and contemplated the future of my trip. I had already experienced so much, and it had only been four days. My Balkan adventure was not even one third over, and yet I felt as though things had changed drastically. The lonely portion of the trip had begun, and I was transitioning not only from north to south, but also from traveling with people to traveling alone.
I watched the flat plains of Vojvodina, laden with crops, fan out in front of me and stretch all the way to the horizon. It’s no wonder that this region was once the breadbasket of Yugoslavia. In that instant, if you had told me that the entire world was farmland, I might have been tempted to believe it. Yellow rapeseed had exploded out of the fields as far as the sky, punctuated here and there by red poppies, and for a while these sights captured my full attention and turned my thoughts away from the reality of my solitary travels. But just as the flatlands would soon give way to the foothills, it was not long before I was pondering my journey alone once more.
Hamilton and I had visited Novi Sad and had the pleasure of spending time with June and her friend and roommate, whom I shall call ‘Jackie’. Both of these girls are French and teach at a French school there in Novi Sad. More importantly, both of them are performance artists, and hanging out with them meant being introduced to a world of street musicians, clowns and jugglers, some of them all three at once. These two girls were a riot. Full of laughter and fun, they made sure that there was never a dull moment during our stay in Novi Sad. They also opened their apartment to us and cooked us food as if we were old friends, even though Hamilton was the only one who truly fit that description.
The five of us (for Hamilton’s friend-Archibald Wheeler, of the Paddington Wheelers-had joined us as well) enjoyed the greatest blueberry ice cream known to man (although there are women who tell me they’ve had better) as we wandered the streets of Novi Sad, our performer-hosts occasionally breaking out into song or cartwheels or both at once. We hiked to the monasteries of Fruška Gora, explored the fortress overlooking Novi Sad, and watched one of the girl’s performances-in-the-making play out on a park bench near their home (and yes, the park bench really was necessary).
Archibald, a man on a traveling mission that dwarfed my own, was quite a fellow himself. Even having just met me, he included me like a friend, making patient asides to explain the back story behind inside jokes he shared with Hamilton, his hometown buddy. The three of us Americans discussed culture, history and literature, and I added several new must-reads to my growing list of books. From the evolution of footwear to the art of writing, the conversation flowed as we walked the back alleys of Belgrade and stalked grilled meat and cheesy burek to fill our bellies. We danced with Serbs at the only alternative club I’ve ever known to play covers of pop songs, and we climbed the walls of ancient castle ruins to get a better idea of what the old rulers must have seen. Jokes doubled and trebled with entendres, as two intelligent gentlemen and myself continuously upped the ante and folded political theory and legal precedent into our humourous observations of the world as we know it.
It was truly a fabulous time, and saying my individual goodbyes to these four blessed souls over the course of two days was a collection of bittersweet moments. I was soon to be on my own, going where I pleased, but I would miss the comradery that had grown so familiar and had turned a simple observation made by one of us into a full-fledged theory about life, the universe and everything. And I highly recommend checking out Archibald’s fantastic blog, which you can do here: http://radtraveler.wordpress.com/.
Traveling from the north of Serbia to the south is like slowly coming in to shore after swimming in the ocean. For a long time there is no change, but then you feel the first bit of sand under your toes and know that the ground is starting to rise. Soon you are swim-walking your way beachward, until finally there is more sand than sea and you must let your feet carry you the rest of the way up onto shore. The hillsides happen gradually and lead into Serbia’s glorious capital, a city which more or less marks the limit of the flat plains. Belgrade brings with it not only an explosion of red-roofed houses in the surrounding countryside, but also the first rolling hills with their lush forests that slowly give way into the mountains. But this was not my destination, and I watched Belgrade slip away past my window as we entered the peaks and valleys of central Serbia.
I was serenaded around this time by a Serbian vocalist whose velvety tones had a jazzy quality, with rises and falls that seemed to mimic the scene unfolding in the outside world. The words she was singing were lost on me, but I could not help but think that the music had a distinctly familiar pattern to it. It was only a few seconds later that I recognized where I had heard these smooth and rhythmic cadences before, and I breathed softly to myself the word, ‘Moondance’. Whether it was a Serbian version of Van Morrison’s timeless track or merely a tribute to his greatness, I will never know. It departed enough from the original to make me doubt that it was a true cover, and yet much of it was so close that I can only imagine that the marvelous night he described was at least a major inspiration for the song writer.
At that moment I wished that there was someone else on the bus that I could discuss this with. I was enjoying the ride, making notes on my little netbook about my travels thus far, and yet here was an example of a simple question that could have sparked an intense discussion and taken inquisitive fellow travelers down a long and winding road of its own. I felt a bit morose at that realization. As one who often travels alone, I tend to enjoy the freedom that comes with the solo sojourn, but I had so enjoyed the time with these friends, old and new, and it was difficult to accept that for the next ten days I would be on my own. I was to meet many wonderful people in that time, including some great backpackers, but there was still something missing, a connection that wasn’t being made.
Far from one to dwell on the negative, I made the most of my journey, and soon I had all but forgotten my woes. This is not to say that I had also forgotten these friends, but the benefits that I was experiencing and the memories that I was making brought me happiness that left little room for somber thoughts of potential conversations that would never be. After all, in the absence of multiple minds to explore a particular line of thought, I was given the chance to reflect on my own impressions and delve deeper into my personal thought processes. I was able to embrace solitude for what it was: the gift of self and the oppourtunity to delve deeper into my own ideas and peel back some of the layers that you only begin to distinguish when you look closely and without distraction.
There were moments when I laughed out loud at what I discovered, and there were times when I would rather have left the stone unturned, but ultimately what I was doing was venturing into myself as much as I was out into the world. What a gift to spend long hours in the company of introspection, opening doors that led both to broom closets and to wondrous new lands. And that was an important discovery in and of itself: not everything you learn about yourself is profound, and many things can turn out to be dull indeed, but every so often you reach a point when you realize that you really are a unique and individual creature, sharing the earth with countless other creatures who are just as unique. Is it mind-blowing? Not really, but it’s important to come back to this ancient wisdom every so often before we get either too high or too low on ourselves.
As my travels wore on, I would find myself closer and closer to the highlands and yet further and further from those days shared with my friends. Most of the jokes and long-winded discussions are now only half-remembered at best, and yet there is a warmth that I still feel when looking back on that time. Will the impassive faces of statues, set forever in my mind, ever be able to contend with the forgotten words that spawned the eternal memory of laughter and mirth? Not on your life. What is important to me, though, is recognizing that hills and flatlands both have their place in our world and in our hearts. I’m not talking about ups and downs or good times and bad. I’m talking about various ways in which we get to experience the world we live in. Is it always with someone else who can share in our wonder and our excitement? No, but at times it is those moments of solitude that bring us closer to ourselves and make us better people in the process. The times when we greet the world alone help prepare us for when we are blessed to be in the company of good people.
So I will wander alone when I must, and even at times when I need not, but I will relish the trips that I can take with friends, discovering things together and building on each others’ experiences. There is truly an exponential factor there that one cannot achieve by oneself. And I must admit that I am tired of exploring the globe without Courtney. We are leading our own lives that will give us unique and insightful outlooks on the universe that we inhabit, but I do look forward to the day when I can travel the world with my girl, the two of us side-by-side, making memories that will truly last a lifetime.