Category Archives: Yugoslavia

Unburied Nuts from 23rd August 2007: Border Crossing


It is the habit of squirrels to bury nuts in the ground and when they think the nuts have sufficiently “aged”, to dig them up again. On this flimsy pretext, I occasionally “dig up” an old post that I feel deserves to see the light of day again.   This story brings back memories of a different time and heart palpitations.

It was 1983. The Iron Curtain was still up. In Malaysia, the communist insurgency in the jungles was still a threat. The Republic of Yugoslavia was still one peaceful nation. That was the year that found me backpacking through parts of Europe. The furthest south and east that I went was to Yugoslavia and specifically to the Plitvice Lakes.

In preparing for this journey, many Malaysian friends warned me about visiting a communist country. Communism was very much the Boogey-man in South East Asia at that time with the fall of Vietnam, the cruel regime in Cambodia and the armed insurgencies raging in the jungles. A friend who made the trip earlier related how she was woken up in the middle of the night when soldiers boarded the train at the Yugoslav border. The soldiers entered her train compartment with force and before her very eyes grabbed a young man who was in the compartment and took him out without explanation. She recalled that the man was silent and appeared to be resigned to his fate and that was the thing that upset her the most about that incident. His resignation and his silence. No one slept for the rest of the journey.

So, it was with some trepidation that I found myself on the train to Yugoslavia. However, my experience was to be altogether quite different. First, there were my travel companions. I had booked a seat on the train but when I got to my compartment, I found one German backpacker and two large Greek women. This was a compartment that seats six people. The problem was that the two Greek women had baggage, bags, cartons of eggs, baskets of fruits etc, which seemed to occupy every seat and every baggage rack. After some mad gesticulation and the frantic waving of my ticket, they grudgingly moved their bundles of vegetables from my seat. Before I could celebrate my small victory, they started smoking in the non-smoking compartment and seemed to deliberately blow the smoke at me.

This rather uncomfortable travel arrangements did distract me from my anxieties but my heart began to race in anticipation when we finally reached the Yugoslav border and the train stopped to allow the immigration and border officials on board. I could hear compartment doors open and orders being shouted in a strange language. The opening and closing of doors grew louder until at last they reached our compartment. The uniformed official came in and demanded in several languages to see our passports. He looked at the German backpacker’s passport and seemed to return it with a little salute. However, he was less courteous with the Greek women and scrutinised their passports for a long while before stamping and returning them.

Then, it was my turn. I gave him my passport with a lump in my throat. He looked at in for a very long time. He flicked through every page and kept looking up at me. He said something but I couldn’t understand him. Then all of a sudden, while still holding my passport, he steps out of the compartment and takes out a whistle and let go three shrill blasts. To my horror, I could hear the sound of heavy boots running towards us from the front of the train.

Another uniformed man appears at the door. He is younger and clearly the first man’s assistant. He had with him a very thick file which I estimate had at least a hundred pages. The two men appeared to be looking through this file while constantly refering to my passport. Needless to say, I was feeling quite concerned. Well actually, close to hysterics. I thought to myself that they must be confusing me with some criminal on their “wanted” list.

This went on for a long while and despite the chill of the night, beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I notice that the German was trying to look disinterested and trying to distance himself from being associated with me. The Greek women on the other hand were smiling and seemed pleased at my discomfort.

After what seemed like eternity, the older man came up to me and said, “Show!” while proffering a small pocket atlas to me. I had a glance at the thick file they carried and it was a list and description of countries. I learnt later that the two border guards had never seen a Malaysian passport, that Malaysia was not in their checklist of countries nor had they heard of Malaysia. I had to show them where the country was on the map. The older guard asked, “Malaysia is real?” So in the end, all my tension ended in comic relief.

They stamped my passport and returned it to me but before they left, he took one last look at me, muttered “Malaysia” to himself and then disappeared into the night. My racing heart did not slow down until the train began moving again.

Advertisements

Stay Away From the Light



It was 1983. It was my first big adventure, backpacking across Europe primarily by myself. After an overnight train ride followed by a rough bus ride from Zagreb, I was extremely excited when I arrived at Plitvice Lakes National Park in what was then still Yugoslavia (this UNESCO World Heritage Site is today in Croatia). I just love nature, the great outdoors and water and the lush wildlife rich forests, limestone hills and caves and cascading lakes scores high in all those aspects.

After finding a place to stay in a home in the village of Jezerce, I hurried to the entrance of the Park and spent the whole afternoon in delirious exploration of the trails, waterfalls, lakes, beaches, boardwalks, caves and vistas of the Park. I was running around all over like a kid in Wonderland. It remains one of the best days I had ever had. Time quickly passed and before I knew it, the sun was beginning to sink behind the hills.

At this stage, I thought of hiking it back to the village but as I was approaching the exit, I was waylaid by this most exquisite aroma. It was the smell of fish being grilled and it came from the Park’s outdoor restaurant. Until then, I had been mostly surviving on stale bread and cheese to save money while on my cross Europe trek. Now after a whole afternoon of rambling and scrambling, I was hungry and when I saw how inexpensive the food was as compared to other parts of Europe, my resistance crumbled. I took a seat and ordered grilled trout.

I had a great dinner but by the time I had finished, night had fallen. To my dismay, I then realised that apart from the restaurant which was then already closing, there were no lights to be seen. It had slipped my mind that I was now in the countryside and in a wilderness area. Although I had a torchlight, it was sitting in my backpack in my room in Jezerce, some 3 km away. I fumbled my way out of the Park and on to the road that led to Jezerce.

The road was not very wide although two cars could pass each other easily. At the side of the road was a narrow verge and then the tall pine trees of the surrounding forests rose high into the night sky so that it blocked off most of the light from the stars. It was very dark and I could barely make out the road. It was also getting very chilly. I had no choice. A warm bed awaited but I would have to navigate this road in the darkness.

As I walked, I realised that I knew very little about this part of the world and its forests. I knew there were bears and wolves in some parts of Europe. Were there any here? I did not know and my heart beat faster in my ignorance. I managed to find a fallen tree branch of suitable length and used it like a blindman’s walking cane, probing the area in front of me. The branch might also come in handy if I did encounter any wolves or at least that was what I comforted myself with.

The journey was slow and stressful. Perhaps an hour had passed and I saw no one else nor any signs of lights from dwellings. The sky above was ablaze with stars twinkling in the chilly night air but I plodded along a dark road lined by dark silent trees. Then, in the distance, I saw a single bright beam of light appear on the road. It was coming towards me at a reasonably fast speed. I realised that it must be a motorcycle and was glad that to have even that little bit of light to illuminate my way.

The light got nearer and bigger and brighter. Eventually, it was so bright, I could not look into it. I moved to the side of the road to allow the motorcycle to pass. Then suddenly, it was upon me. To my horror, it was not a motorbike at all. Instead it turned out to be a massive juggernaut, a big 16 wheeler monster that was barreling down this country road that was barely wide enough to accomodate it and at high speed. To cap it all, it had only one headlight working.

The driver may also have been surprised to see me and seconds before I reacted, I heard the loud blast of its air horn. Th sound galvanised me into action and I threw myself off the road and into some bushes at the edge of the forest. The juggernaut rolled by with such speed that I could feel the air and myself being sucked towards the wheels as they passed. Then just as quickly, the lights and noise of the truck disappeared and darkness and quiet returned.

It had been another close brush with an unpleasant end. I made it to the village and safety without further incident but I was cold, bruised and in shock and it took a very long soak in a warm bath before I recovered any color in my cheeks.

If I had learned any lesson from this experience, it is to appreciate the truth behind the following wise sayings; “Stay away from the light.” and “The light at the end of the tunnel may turn out to be a speeding train.” Oh, and you would have thought that I would have also learnt the importance of bringing a torchlight along when walking on dark roads and forests but I still forget from time to time.

For all you readers with morbid curiosities who wanted me to conclude my previous post about near death experiences, let me just say that apart from what has already been mentioned, I also had Scarlet Fever, had a lorry rip off my car door, escaped being impaled by metal rods from the back of a lorry and been in at least 3 car accidents including one in which I caused the car to spin 3 times.That’s all folks…….and it is quite enough, don’t you think?

Faces and Places


Norwegian Guide, Bergen

I just got back from a week in Indonesia. Although I enjoyed the experience and meeting up with both new and old colleagues on this trip, I missed my family badly and couldn’t wait to be back home. This wasn’t always the case, of course. In my younger days, before I got married, I was quite excited about traveling.

In fact, when I turned 21, I went backpacking through Europe for a month and never felt anything but the thrill of the open road. That trip was and will forever be a defining moment in my life. In a way, it was an important rite of passage to adulthood and a declaration that I could go out into the wide world and take care of myself. In those few, precious, glorious autumn days of my youth, I left the coast of England and made my landfall in Belgium; crossed through the Ardennes into Luxembourg; went through Germany on the way to Denmark; took a long train and ferry ride to Norway; retraced my path and went to Austria; thought of heading to Greece but bailed out into the then Republic of Yugoslavia; finally returning to Belgium.

The earth has circled the sun many times since then but as I reflect on that trip, I realise as much as I had enjoyed the scenery, the architecture, history and culture, the fondest of memories are the people I met along the way.

  1. Belgium. There was an English father with his teenage son who were spending two weeks cycling through Europe. We met quite a few times as we chose a similar travel route. It culminated with a quiet but beautiful evening on the verandah of a small Youth Hostel in the Ardennes sharing stories and several rounds of beer with other fellow travelers. It was great. There was also that Youth Hostel in Namur with its hippie American staff and their wonderfully bohemian barbeque party.
  2. Luxembourg. I met up with the son of a famous cartoonist. Together we had some wild adventures in this ancient kingdom which would have made the authorities frown with disapproval but which make the memories all the more precious. You can read more about it here.
  3. Germany. It was a long train ride so my traveling companion and I decided to practice a few choice phrases in Hebrew on a couple of unsuspecting Isreali youths. In fact, we only knew about three phrases but it was enough to have one of them enquire if there was a large Chinese Jewish community. We enjoyed playing with their minds!
  4. Norway. I will always remember that very sweet and friendly guide at the cultural village in Bergen. It was pouring with rain and the two of us were the only ones mad enough to show up but she still graciously took us around. A fun interaction and a very fond memory.
  5. Germany. The visit to Herrenchiemsee was interesting but spending a rainy afternoon doing laundry with two Southern Belles from America was special. One was a nurse and the other a student of politics. Somehow, we got talking about the Kennedy era and the American Camelot.
  6. Austria. Arriving late in Salzburg, I teamed up with an American student to find a beer garden for food and drinks. We had a wonderful time under the stars talking about politics and life in general. We also had a great meal and liberal amounts of beer which resulted in a mad adventure trying to find our way through the maze of streets to our Hostel. It did not help that neither of us could walk straight but bouncing off the walls of the narrow cobvled streets was fun in its own way.
  7. Yugoslavia. This was a nation of colourful characters. Starting with the bus conductor that insisted in speaking to me even though I did not understand a word he was saying. At Plitvice Lakes, I enjoyed the company and the stories of my B&B host who was an elderly Dutch lady who had lived in Indonesia and had now found her heaven in Yugoslavia ( I often what happened to her during the war). Then I actually ran into a group of dissidents that printed an underground newspaper. They actually kept me company for a couple of hours while I waited for a train. On the train, I then met an attractive and vivacious Aussie girl (Kate) and the Yugoslavian soldier who commandeered my phrase book so that he could hit on the former.
  8. Austria. Back in Vienna, I spent my time in the company of two Aussie girls, Kate and Gai. We made a good team. One girl could be counted on to find great shopping, the other was an expert at finding coffee and cakes and I was the one who could actually read a map and navigate. We all had a very interesting but scary encounter with an elderly man with wild eyes who kept prodding us with his walking stick while asking, “Hitler gud, ya?” We did the culture vulture thing for a few days and promised to keep in touch, buddies for life and look each other up…….but never did.
  9. Belgium. My second time back in Belgium and I was caught by a nationwide transport strike. I celebrated my 21st birthday with a Canadian student, a Welsh Parole officer and an Irish Artist. I wandered the streets of Brussels with a Moroccan student even though we communicated only by sign language. Finally, I made a run for the ports and back to U.K. by hitching a ride with an American pastor (the driver), an American couple and a British student.

Finally though, I should not forget my friend, partner in crime and occasional travel companion (although we started the trip together, we split up a couple of times before finally separating as he went on into Greece and I stopped at Yugoslavia). Now he, is a great character indeed but I think I will elaborate in my next post.

Barter Trade


PhotoCredit:- Kate by LGS

The train journey out of Yugoslavia was interesting in its own right even though it lacked the drama of my train journey into that country just a few days earlier. As I boarded the train at the Zagreb station at eleven at night, I had used up almost all my local currency earlier. I was quite hungry as I had not eaten since morning but with the last of my local currency I bought a bottle of water as I decided thirst was even harder to ignore than hunger pangs.

When finally the train pulled out of the station on its way to Austria, I found myself alone with an attractive Aussie backpacker in the train compartment. Strange as it may seem, I was however, more distracted by the sight and smell of the doner kebab that she was eating. We exchanged pleasantries and I learned that her name was Kate. After a short conversation during which she had made no offer of sharing the doner kebab with me, I decided to excuse myself and to try to put the gnawing hunger out of my mind by catching some shut-eye. Not an easy task as visions of food danced before me.

Not long after, a uniformed soldier with a rifle came into the compartment and sat next to me. As I did not have a pleasant experience with soldiers on my way into Yugoslavia, you will forgive me if I was a little alarmed at his presence. However, he seemed friendly enough, flashing a smile at both Kate and I. He had stored his kit bag away so it seemed he would be our companion for the journey.

He said something to Kate in what must have been Serbian. Kate just shrugged her shoulders to indicate that she didn’t understand and went back to her book that she was reading. The soldier tried a few times but got nowhere with Kate.

The compartment settled down to some quiet with only the sound of the train on the tracks and the passing wind to be heard. I was actually about to nod off when suddenly I felt the soldier prodding me. I open my eyes to see a smiling face but I couldn’t comprehend what was happening.

He said something to me in Serbian. I shrugged. He pointed at my backpack. I followed his gaze and realised that he was pointing at a little white book that I had in my backpack’s side pocket. It was in fact a small travelers’ phase book for the Balkans which had English, Serbian and Italian phrases alongside one another.

I took it out of the pocket and showed it to him. He was delighted. His eyes lit up as he opened the book. He scrutinised it for awhile and then he pointed to the book.
I looked and his finger was showing me the phrase, “Hello. My name is…” and then he said “Josef”. Okay, I got the idea and so using the phrase book, we had the rudimentary tool for communication, although we were stuck with phrases like “where are you going?”, “where did you come from?” and such. We seemed to have made a connection.

This went on until, he found the phrase “this is home-made”. He took out a bottle from his kit bag opened it and offered it to me. “Slivovitz”, he pointed out in the book which in the English translation read, “plum brandy”. At his insistence, I took a swig from the bottle. How should I describe it? Liquid fire comes close. It did have a kick and I felt instantly warmed from the inside.

He then produced an apple and gave it to me. I was overwhelmed by his friendliness and generosity. As I bit into the apple, he reached over and took the phrase book. He looked something up and then he went over and sat next to Kate and showed her some phrase. Kate nodded in response. Then they both got up and made their way out of the compartment. As she walked past, she winked at me and mischievously said, “He’s invited me out for a smoke. Don’t wait up for us though.”

Then, suddenly I was alone in the compartment. As I finished off my apple, I suddenly realised that the soldier was a real smooth operator and that he had been after the phrase book all the time so that he could make a move on Kate. I felt used. Still, I reasoned, I was hungry now I am fed and besides, I had a bottle of liquid fire to dull the sense of humiliation. I wouldn’t see either of them again for at least a couple of hours and when I did, they were both positively giggly. I did get my phrase book back eventually but it had become dog-eared from recent use.

Post-script:- After we ditched the soldier at the border, Kate and I got to know each other better and we were to spend the next few days as traveling companions in Vienna, Austria.

Border Crossing



It was 1983. The Iron Curtain was still up. In Malaysia, the communist insurgency in the jungles was still a threat. The Republic of Yugoslavia was still one peaceful nation. That was the year that found me backpacking through parts of Europe. The furthest south and east that I went was to Yugoslavia and specifically to the Plitvice Lakes.

In preparing for this journey, many Malaysian friends warned me about visiting a communist country. Communism was very much the Boogey-man in South East Asia at that time with the fall of Vietnam, the cruel regime in Cambodia and the armed insurgencies raging in the jungles. A friend who made the trip earlier related how she was woken up in the middle of the night when soldiers boarded the train at the Yugoslav border. The soldiers entered her train compartment with force and before her very eyes grabbed a young man who was in the compartment and took him out without explanation. She recalled that the man was silent and appeared to be resigned to his fate and that was the thing that upset her the most about that incident. His resignation and his silence. No one slept for the rest of the journey.

So, it was with some trepidation that I found myself on the train to Yugoslavia. However, my experience was to be altogether quite different. First, there were my travel companions. I had booked a seat on the train but when I got to my compartment, I found one German backpacker and two large Greek women. This was a compartment that seats six people. The problem was that the two Greek women had baggage, bags, cartons of eggs, baskets of fruits etc, which seemed to occupy every seat and every baggage rack. After some mad gesticulation and the frantic waving of my ticket, they grudgingly moved their bundles of vegetables from my seat. Before I could celebrate my small victory, they started smoking in the non-smoking compartment and seemed to deliberately blow the smoke at me.

This rather uncomfortable travel arrangements did distract me from my anxieties but my heart began to race in anticipation when we finally reached the Yugoslav border and the train stopped to allow the immigration and border officials on board. I could hear compartment doors open and orders being shouted in a strange language. The opening and closing of doors grew louder until at last they reached our compartment. The uniformed official came in and demanded in several languages to see our passports. He looked at the German backpacker’s passport and seemed to return it with a little salute. However, he was less courteous with the Greek women and scrutinised their passports for a long while before stamping and returning them.

Then, it was my turn. I gave him my passport with a lump in my throat. He looked at in for a very long time. He flicked through every page and kept looking up at me. He said something but I couldn’t understand him. Then all of a sudden, while still holding my passport, he steps out of the compartment and takes out a whistle and let go three shrill blasts. To my horror, I could hear the sound of heavy boots running towards us from the front of the train.

Another uniformed man appears at the door. He is younger and clearly the first man’s assistant. He had with him a very thick file which I estimate had at least a hundred pages. The two men appeared to be looking through this file while constantly refering to my passport. Needless to say, I was feeling quite concerned. Well actually, close to hysterics. I thought to myself that they must be confusing me with some criminal on their “wanted” list.

This went on for a long while and despite the chill of the night, beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I notice that the German was trying to look disinterested and trying to distance himself from being associated with me. The Greek women on the other hand were smiling and seemed pleased at my discomfort.

After what seemed like eternity, the older man came up to me and said, “Show!” while proffering a small pocket atlas to me. I had a glance at the thick file they carried and it was a list and description of countries. I learnt later that the two border guards had never seen a Malaysian passport, that Malaysia was not in their checklist of countries nor had they heard of Malaysia. I had to show them where the country was on the map. The older guard asked, “Malaysia is real?” So in the end, all my tension ended in comic relief.

They stamped my passport and returned it to me but before they left, he took one last look at me, muttered “Malaysia” to himself and then disappeared into the night. My racing heart did not slow down until the train began moving again.

World Foods 1: Ćevapčići (Serbia)


I am no gourmet chef but I know what I like and in this series of Wolrd Foods, I would like to share with you some of the culinary surprises and highpoints from samplings from around the world.

To start the series off, I thought I would begin which would tie in nicely with the recent Special Spot posting on Plitvice Lakes, Croatia. Ćevapčići (pronounced “che-vap-chee-chee”) is a popular food of the old Yugoslavia and throughout the entire Balkan region and can also be found if you look for it in parts of Austria and Germany. Essentially, it is a grilled meat sausage but the taste is distinctive, praise-worthy and its mouthwatering properties is affecting me even as I write. It is all at once heady with spices, rich and meaty in flavour with a tinge of tanginess. It goes well with with kajmak or sour cream, fresh peppers, ajvar (a tomato and peppers based paste) and tomatoes and is often served on a pita like bread.

Of course, different regions all argue that the best ćevapčići is their version. I believe that the one that I had eaten was a Serbian version and I first tried it in Vienna. Some say that it is the blending of at least three meats (common in the Bosnian Version) that makes it a king amongst meat patties. It’s all good. Try it if you have the opportunity.

Squirrel’s Secret Spots No:1 (Plitvice Lakes)


Where do squirrels go to for holidays? I doubt they ever really go on holidays, unlike us lucky humans. So to answer that question, I will have to use my mind’s eye and apply the power of imagination. It seems to me that squirrels would love nature of course, prefer branches less taken instead of the main trunk, stay close to an abundance of food and would be keen to try local fruits and nuts. Being successful exploiters of human habitation, they would be interested in human structures but prefer crumbling ruins to sleek constructions of metal and glass which just leaves them cold. Finally, being accomplished dancers themselves, squirrels are culture vultures. So these will be the magic places mentioned in this series of Squirrel’s Secret Spots.

Spot No: 1 is a place of my youth. I had marked the passing of my 21st birthday (many years ago now), by embarking on a voyage of discovery and self-discovery. A rite of passage, a journey to find myself, a spreading of wings, a precious memory of a month of tramping through Europe with a Karrimore Backpack and an Inter-Rail card. It was on this journey that I stumbled across this jewel.

Plitvice Lakes is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Croatia. At the time when I was there, it was still part of the independent minded communist state of Yugoslavia. It is a place of exceptional natural beauty and again at the time of my visit, a place of great tranquility. I suspect the latter has changed with ever increasing number of tourists. Still I would like to believe that you would still be able to have a portion of it for yourself somewhere along the many kilometers of wooden walkways and trails.

The area is basically a karst landscape but is so flooded with water that there are cascades, waterfalls, streams and brooks linking 16 turquoise-blue lakes of crystal clear waters. Everywhere there are deposits of limestone overgrown with moss and dripping with water. The lakes are in two clusters which are the Upper (gornja jezera) and Lower (donja jezera) Lakes. There are places where caves, holes and even tunnels have been carved in the rock. There are places for swimming. It is water, water everywhere and set in the midst of a dense green forest of beech and pine. The wildlife is also plentiful as is the trout, both in the lakes and on the restaurant menus.

I spent only two days and one night there but would like to have spent longer. Even in my short stay, I managed to meet many interesting ordinary Yugoslavs. The place where I stayed was actually a home owned by a Dutch woman who had lived in Indonesia but then moved to Yugoslavia because she liked the life and the people there. I was also quite impressed by the close bonds between the Christian and Muslim communities which was especially evident in the countryside where they lived side by side in mutual support and respect. In my journeys, I also encountered dissidents who were upset about how the country was run but again I was surprised when not one of them would speak bad about President Tito. To them, Tito had brought unity, peace and stability……. it was the other idiots in government that were messing things up.

It was therefore with great dismay that I witnessed through the media the breakup of Yugoslavia with its attendant wars and ethnic clashes. It seems to me that the other idiots had indeed messed things up. I feel sad for all the atrocities and animosity that had risen from such a peaceful land and pray for healing for all. Plitvice was not spared the horrors and in fact the first casualty of war in Croatia was Josip Jovic, who was a Plitvice Lakes Park Police Officer. One hopes, that its tranquility and beauty will today help heal battered psyche and banish the horrors of war forever.

(Plitvice Lakes, Croatia = 8* rating out of 10) Posted by Picasa