This past weekend, I decided to embark on an overnight journey to Tara Mountain, a beautiful National State Park located in Southwest Serbia. I wanted to go with other people in my group, but no one felt inclined to join me. I am a pretty adventurous person, so I was excited for the challenge. My bus left the Beograd bus station at 8 am on Saturday morning. After the first couple stops, the bus was packed to the brim. Most people on the bus were probably ready to reach their destination, but I was perfectly content with lying my head against the window like a little kid and gazing at the landscape outside. We navigated through the outskirts of Beograd, and continued on to a highway which led out of the city. The small towns turned into remote villages which featured large plots of farming land. Eventually, people began to filter off the bus at ensuing stops, and soon the bus was only a quarter full. We reached Tara at 1 pm, netting a trip time of 5 hours. After departing the bus, I used my phone’s GPS to find my hostel, which was only a 5 minute walk away. I was greeted in English (which was refreshing) by the person working the Hostel. Her name was Laurie, and happened to be from Virginia. She is volunteering at Hostel while she backpacks around Europe. I also met Marko, the Hostel owner. We chatted a bit before they showed me to my room. It had four beds and a beautiful view of the Tara mountainside.
I returned downstairs where Laurie gave me a layout of the land on a giant map. I had two options, a 3 hour loop that featured a nice lookout point, and a 6 hour loop that included the lookout point and a famous Christian monastery. Considering I didn’t know that land at all I opted for the former. Laurie handed me a small map of the land and I set off. Right before the trail began was a gas-station, where I bought some snacks.
I then made my way to the trail entrance and officially began the hike. I walked down a hill and went across a small bridge arching over a creek. I then came across a fork in the road. The map didn’t show this split, yet both options had the trail’s symbol marking them (a red and white circle painted on a tree). I opted for left and continued up the small hill. At the top there was an opening which led to a road. I looked at the map again and still couldn’t find my location. It didn’t bother me being lost, and I decided to just walk along the road. Not long after I came to a familiar sign, which marked the beginning of the trail. I found it quite comical that 1 hour in to my hike I found myself in the exact place where I had started. I knew I had made my mistake at the split in the trail, and when I reached it again I kept right. The trail continued for another mile or so, and then reached the edge of the woods which led to another road. I was confused yet again, and against my pre-departure ambitions, pulled out the GPS on my phone. I was able to locate the look-out point, which was only a 30 minute walk away. I continued on the road, which led through a small town with beautiful mountain homes.
I continued along the road until it reached a Church. Right by the Church’s entrance was a trail sign. It took me a while but after converting the Cryllic letters on the sign to my native Latin script (shout out to Milica, my language teacher), I realized the lookout was a short 10 minute hike to the right. I continued down the trail which soon began to make its way uphill. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that I might not be the only one enjoying the Tara forest today.
Luckily, I soon came across the lookout out point, which completely took my breath away.
I followed a nearby pathway to the top of a rock that gave me an even higher vantage point of the mountainside and valley below.
While I was sitting on the rock, a fellow group of hikers arrived, consisting of two little girls along with their mother and grandmother. I made my way down soon after and asked the mother if she could take a picture of me. I attempted to ask her in Serbian, but she couldn’t quite understand and gave me a strange look. It is a look I have become familiar with. It is a look of confusion, as most people think I am from the Balkans and don’t understand why I can’t speak the language. Luckily, the mother could speak some English and she was able to snap this picture.
I stayed for a couple more minutes and then made my way back to the trail. I soon approached a sign that I had missed earlier. One of the posts had the name of the Monastery, which was a 2 hour and 30 minute hike away. I figured I wouldn’t go all the way to the Monastery, but decided to head off in that direction to just see if there were any nice views. I only made it about twenty minutes when I came across a dead end. Beyond it was a very small trail, but it was only a couple inches wide and looked way too small to be a human trail. I remembered the warning sign about brown bears, and decided to head back the way I came. I looked at the map and devised my return trail, which was slightly different than the way I had come. This trail was a bit hillier, and unfortunately very muddy. I did get a couple good pics of nature, including these bugs on top of flowers.
Eventually the trail led out onto a gravel road that cut through some rolling hills harvesting some sort of crop. There was a beautiful tree line along the edge of the farmland.
I continued on until I reached the road that passed through the village with pretty houses. There was now a group of horses feeding on some grass alongside the road. I was taking pictures of them until one of the bigger ones turned around and began approaching me while making aggressive sniffs. I frantically backed up to the other side. This is the last pic I snapped, which shows the horse as it begins to protect its territory.
I think the horse was playing a game with me, as I quickly realized it had pushed me over to the side of the road where the horses had shit maybe five minutes earlier. Luckily I avoided stepping on the manure, but the smell was unavoidable. I continued on the sidewalk until I noticed a grassy field that had some nice views.
I made my way back to the road and headed back in the direction of the trail. I soon came across a creepy abandoned structure, and my adventurous spirit convinced me to go in and take a look. Here are a few photos.
I returned to the trail, and 30 minutes later made it back to the Hostel. I rested for a bit and then went to a nearby hotel café for wi-fi. Afterwards, I went with Laurie to the grocery store, where I got bread and salami for dinner. One of Marko’s friends, Dragan, was at the store and gave us a ride back to the hostile. We all sat down at the outside patio and enjoyed the sunset and a band that must have been playing at the nearby hotel. Dragan began taking shots of Rakija (Serbia’s renowned Liquor) and I matched him with shots of water. Around midnight, Dragan had the urge to cook up a Serbian Barbecue, which essentially just means throwing every kind of meat that is in the fridge on to a frying pan and adding a bit of oil. I originally told him that I was full and didn’t want any, but after seeing the sizzling meat I could not resist. I ate until I was stuffed. Below is a picture of Dragan and his prized pan of BBQ. This picture was taken on my Serbian phone and is a bit blurry, but I felt it deserved to be on here.
A little bit later, Laurie challenged Marko and Dragan to see if they could unlock the door while only using their feet. They failed miserably, and then tried to do it with their mouth, which they also couldn’t do. Around 2 am we were all exhausted and decided to call it a night.
The next morning I woke up around 11 and said goodbye to my great hosts. Below is a picture with the Master chef and his baby son.
I went off to the hotel and waited for my bus which left at 2:15. At around 1:45 I went to the bus stop to be safe. The driver was at the front talking to a lady outside. I handed him my ticket but after looking at it he returned it to me and said something in Serbian. When I gave him a confused look, the lady next to him told me in English that I had to go to the hotel and get the ticket stamped. I returned to the hotel where I went to the desk and had a clerk stamp the ticket. I returned to the bus and got on. The driver turned on the bus and then came back to collect tickets. He got to me and began to rip of my ticket stub but stopped halfway. He then looked at me and said something in Serbian, and then said “you can’t.” I was beyond confused. We found someone else on the bus who spoke English and translated. Apparently my ticket was not for that bus line, and I had to get off. Annoyed and confused, I went back to the Hotel to get an explanation. The clerk explained that my ticket was for a different line that didn’t require a stamp. She told me my bus would come at 4:15. I hung out at the hotel until 3:45 and then headed back to the bus station for round two. At the bus stop I met a really nice guy who worked recreations at the hotel and spoke great English. He confirmed that we had the same ticket which was reassuring. We talked a lot about sports, and he also made me aware of some of his hardships. He went to University in Beograd and aspired to be a teacher, but after graduating there were no open positions anywhere. He then settled on moving back to his wife’s home town which is near Tara and got a job at the hotel. He likes his job, but he worries that the daily change of altitudes, 900 meters, is hurting his blood pressure.
The bus came right at 4:15, and we hopped on. The afternoon had been a bit hectic and a little stressful, but now my bus fiasco was behind me. I was on a bus heading back to Beograd, nothing else could go wrong…
About an hour into our trek back to Beograd, our bus slowed down and pulled off to the side of the road. The driver said something in Serbian then got off the bus. Unfortunately, my new friend had already gotten off at his stop and wasn’t there to tell me what was going on. I soon realized the bus had broken down when the driver went to the front of the bus and opened the hood.
Out of all the places where one’s bus could break down, this was one of the more scenic.
Unfortunately, a large rain cloud overtook us. We all got back on the bus and we drove very slowly down the road. About ten minutes later we pulled over on the side of the road again. At this point I had no I idea if the bus was broken or not. After another 25 minutes passed we got back on the road. We drove for another hour and then approached another bus station. After the bus stopped, everyone got off the bus. I was very confused because I knew we were not in Beograd. I eventually realized everyone was getting on to a new bus in front of us. I took my bags and joined them.
Besides hitting some traffic right outside of Beograd, the remainder of the trip went smoothly. After arriving back to the Beograd station, I took a short tram back to my home-stay in Novi Beograd. Despite being 10 o’clock at night, my wonderful host parents had my dinner heated up and ready to go in less than five minutes of being back.
Despite being both mentally and physically exhausted from my trip, I lied awake in bed and reflected on my eventful weekend. I felt like my trip had been a week long, even though I was gone for less then 48 hours. Having such little time left in this country, I was glad that I felt this way and it made me realize that I had made the most out of my trip. One thing that I have learned in my 5 weeks of being in Serbia is that things never go as planned. Not necessarily always in a bad way, but things always pop up out of the blue. You just have to accept things the way they happen and look at it as part of the adventure. It could have been easy to be annoyed by series of unfortunate events surrounding my departure back to Beograd, but it was all part of the adventure.
I am glad that I followed through with this trip despite having to go alone. I noticed many advantages of going on this trip alone and found out a lot about myself. I also discovered it easier to engage/meet Serbians by myself opposed to with a big group of other Americans. In a lot of group activities I have done, I’m unable to have long, genuine conversations with the people who live here and most of my interactions feel shallow.
Relating back to the previous night, I remembered how different my interactions had felt, just sitting out on the patio and talking for hours with my hosts. Despite a slight language barrier, and them thinking that I was possibly an American spy (they called me 007 throughout the night, who isn’t even American), I felt like I had formed a genuine connection and truly immersed myself in the Serbian culture.
Context: This summer I am participating in DukeEngage, an 8-week long volunteer program in Beograd, Serbia. I am working with ADRA, a Humanitarian relief organization that is currently working with refugees from the Middle East living in Serbia. I now only have a little over 2 weeks remaining. I am extremely lucky to be able have this opportunity, and especially grateful to Duke University along with the SIT site organizers who have made this entire experience possible.