This is the Balkans, baby. 

Hello from Budva, Montenegro, the Russian-owned Riviera. It feels good to be back in picturesque little seaside towns after spending two weeks in some of the more, ahem, frayed parts of the Balkans. This particular neighborhood of nations is defined by stark contrasts. The gorgeous, striking landscapes are periodically blighted by gray communist-era brutalism or inexplicably unfinished buildings. The mountains around Sarajevo – home to the 1984 Winter Olympics, and less than a decade later, the Republika Srpska forces who besieged the city for 1,425 days. The lovely, generous people never fail to prove the resilience of the human heart in the aftermath of one of the worst wars of our time. Contrasts.

The other defining feature of the Balkans is – well, it’s like something you have to whack with a wrench a few times before it turns on. I’ve gotten used to things being a little bit fucked up all the time. The road from Sarajevo to Podgorica – the capitol cities of two tiny neighboring countries – is a one-lane road that is only paved some of the time. The train? Oh, there is no direct train. I could conceivably get there by train; it takes 47 hours and two changes. So I take the bus.

The bus driver smokes. Constantly. I can’t open the window because the window doesn’t open. Sometimes when we go around a bend, a welcome breeze makes its way back to me. The bus screeches to a halt on the side of the road and picks up an old toothless man, who also smokes. The ancient marshrutka is full, so he stands in the aisle. One cow and a few meager fruit stands later, we again come to a halt. We’ve probably only traveled about 3 kilometers – the bus is going at a leisurely pace to avoid head-on collisions. Remember, this is a one lane road. We are stopped because there is an excavator blocking the way. It’s moving a pile of dirt and Coca-Cola bottles off the road. The toothless man gets off the bus and smokes. The bus driver stays on the bus and smokes. I laugh.

I get to Podgorica and set out to find my hostel. But I walk up to the address I’d saved on Google Maps and it is a little hovel with an old truck in the front yard. In this European capitol city. No hostel. No problem! I am in a European capitol city. I will find a cafe, hop on to the wifi network, and figure this out. I walk around a bit and see plenty of shoe stores and lots of communist-era brutalism and unfinished buildings. Lots of betting parlors. Several shops that cater to the distinct male Balkan uniform of Adidas pants, a graphic polo shirt, and a man-purse. A couple of meager fruit stands. Not a cafe in sight. I keep wandering. I don’t have any Euros (did you know that the Euro is the default currency of Montenegro because there is no official state currency?) so I look for a bank. Nope, no banks either. Huh. I can’t buy myself a coffee at the cafe I eventually find, so I just ask the waitress, who is wearing the female Balkan uniform of what can only be described as stage makeup, if I can use the wifi.

I find another hostel very close by, miraculously, in the 36 second window between the moment I connect to the wifi and the moment it stops working. The hostel is in “Blok 7.” Easy enough! I get to the place where Google alleges there to be a hostel, but I once again see no evidence of a hostel. Lesson learned: Google Maps is not to be trusted. I see a conspicuously non-local guy wearing crocs and a fishing hat who I assume to be another traveler. It’s a guy from St. Petersburg who is here to make a transfer in the bank, which closed at 3pm. He has no idea about the hostel, he lives in a neighboring town. He gives me 5€ and advises me to “get out of this fucking shithole as fast as you can, this place is terrible, why would you want to stay?” I can’t fathom the idea of spending any more time on a godforsaken bus. I give him back the money. He asks a local guy in Serbian if he knows where this hostel is, and the man points me in the right direction. Thank god.

But this is one of those enormous apartment buildings built by Tito’s men. There are 5 entrances and 8 stories. I walk into the betting parlor downstairs and ask the kind lady if she knows where the entrance to the hostel is. “No,” she says. “People always come in and ask me but I don’t know.” Okay. But it’s in this building. I sit on the steps outside and try to connect to one of the open networks to check the hostel website. None of them work. As luck would have it, a man walks up and asks me through an impressive bite of hamburger if I’m looking for the hostel. This is the owner of the hostel. The entrance is about 15 meters away. He points at the sign – a piece of sun-bleached paper in a plastic sleeve posted far above eye-level on the corner of the building. How could I miss it?

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