It is only two days after attending a party, uninvited, on the Croatian Bosnian border that I find myself inadvertently gate-crashing another gathering. But this time I am the very first guest to arrive. In fact I arrive before the hosts do.
It’s the end of a long hot day in the mountains and I am finally descending after many hours of extended and arduous climbs. I have already spent some time looking for a suitable place to camp – first in depressingly rubbish strewn pine forest around a decaying out of season ski resort that sprawled over the summit of the mountain and then as I dropped down along a rugged rocky gorge which provided plenty of dramatic views but not much by way of a flat sheltered spot to pitch a tent.
Finally, the valley opens out a little on either side of the river and eventually I spy a gravel road leading over a bridge away from the main road. I turn onto it, duck under the locked steel boom barrier across the road at the far side of the bridge and ride along the track sheltered from the view of any car driving along the main road on the other side of the river by scrubby bushes on the river banks. After a few hundred metres I come across a flat grassy area which would make a perfect camp site – perfect, that is, but for the presence of a small hut and a basic roofed structure sheltering a couple of long picnic tables and a fire place for barbeques.
I get off the bike and look around searching for clues as to what kind of place this is. Privately owned? Or public property? A sports club or association, perhaps? I glance at my watch: 8PM on a Sunday night. Who would turn up now?
I walk to the river and scout the steep banks for somewhere to access the water. It’s not long before I find some rough concrete steps and I’m very grateful to strip off and wash away the day’s sweat and grime. I return to the bike and unpack my meagre supplies and consider what I might eat for dinner. I’m just starting to relax as darkness falls. It is then that two cars rattle down the road and pull up in a cloud of dust in front of me.
Men tumble out of the cars and busy themselves unloading the vehicles. One walks straight past me without a glance and unlocks the hut. He returns to the shelter with an extension cord which he plugs into a socket and the bare bulbs hanging low over the table light up. The others come to the tables carrying plastic bags and boxes and start to unpack meat, bread, beer.
“Hello,” I say.
The man in possession of the keys approaches and shakes my hand brusquely. Another man joins us and asks in imperfect English, “Are you going to sleep here?”
“Ummmm. Well, yes,…. I thought I might….”
There is is no convincing way to deny it. My sleeping bag and tent are conspicuously draped over the wood pile airing out a little.
“Okay. Okay. No problem.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you.”
They turn away.
The fire is lit and meat and sausages are soon sizzling away. The men – there are about 8 or 9 of them – sit at the table and start to tackle the cases of beer they have brought with them. The conversation is animated and loud and utterly unintelligible to me.
It isn’t until the meat is cooked and on the table that anyone addresses me again. And then, with a sense of hospitality that extends to even the most unwelcome of uninvited guests, food and drink are pressed upon me. A plastic plate piled up with a giant pork chop and a couple of sausages is pushed across the table, along with a bottle of beer and some bread.
The English speaker of the group has an uncertain grasp of the language but his confidence grows as the meal progresses. As the quantity of empty beer bottles on the table steadily increases he starts to translate various questions that are directed at me. The enquiries traverse a well worn path: where are you from? where are you going? aren’t you scared? isn’t it dangerous for a woman to travel alone?
I find these questions wearisome but under the circumstances I do my best to answer patiently. Certain destinations on my proposed route south east through Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey raise vociferous objections.
“Albania! You can’t trust the people there! They are all criminals.”
“Turkey! But it’s too dangerous!”
I repeat my favourite mantra: people are nice, people are kind, people are hospitable. I insist that this has always been my experience.
Eyes roll and and the men continue to voice doubts.
“But you know, …Muslims,… they are different, they just don’t respect women! It’s their culture.”
I shrug in the face of their knowing insinuations. What can I say? The fact is that none of us have yet travelled to the places we are discussing. We are all talking theoretically on the basis of our assumptions and preferred ideologies.
The men’s attention wanders and I sit listening to their talk.
“What are they talking about?” I ask the English speaker, after an interval.
“Hunting!” He laughs. “Always hunting!”
He attends to the conversation for a while and then laughs again and turns to me to explain.
“We went hunting today but didn’t kill anything. They are talking about the ones that got away. They grow bigger and bigger with each telling.”
I laugh, too.
“What language are you speaking?’ I ask.
“Serbian! We are Serbs!” The answer is emphatic.
“Ah. I can’t tell. You just look like people to me.”
He squirms a little. “Yes, yes. We think so, too.”
There is an awkward pause.
“What do you think of our country?”
I explain that people are nice, people are kind, people are hospitable. Just like most other places. Actually, to tell the truth, people are exceptionally hospitable in Bosnia. And it’s beautiful, I add. I wave an airy hand taking in the surrounding landscape – there are mountains, forests, rivers.
The men hasten to tell me that life used to be better, before the war. The town I passed through on the mountain top used to be a popular holiday destination, they say, but nobody goes there now. It’s not the same. One of the men gestures along the valley here – this area was a battle front, he says. The owner of the property explains that there used to be a proper house here, a hunting lodge that belonged to his father, but it was destroyed during the conflict. This hut is what they have found the means to rebuild since then. They are still working on it.
I commiserate. It’s sad, I say. Such a beautiful country. Such nice people.
Their attention focuses on me again. Are you married? No, no. But what about children? Don’t you have children? No, I don’t. The men all have families, of course.
And then they return to the question of fear. But aren’t you scared? Well, what of, I parry. Really, on the whole, I would prefer to deflect the conversation away from the potential dangers of being a woman alone in the world, especially since I am in the company of a sizeable group of increasingly inebriated men in an isolated mountain valley. But they continue to ponder the matter amongst themselves and in the end I am made to understand that they themselves are frankly scared of the dark.
“We are honoured to meet you!” they announce collectively. And I suppose it is on account of my courageous indifference to the regular arrival of the night.
I thank the men for their kindness, for sharing their meat and bread and beer, for unhesitatingly accepting my uninvited presence amongst them.
And then a question of my own occurs to me.
“And what about your wives? Do they ever come here? On the weekend, sometimes, perhaps?”
“Oh, no! Never! We keep our women in their place!”