The Purest River in Serbia

The extreme heat persisted throughout the night which prevented me from getting any decent amount of sleep.  I eventually swam out of bed around 3 AM that first night on account of pure frustration.  I ate a small bowl of cereal for a lack of anything better to do before I returned back to the morass which my bed had become.  I tossed and turned for several more hours before I eventually got back out of bed, took a frigid shower, and headed downstairs to the classroom to await my scheduled placement test which would determine which class I would be in for the next three weeks.

The examination looked like every other language test I’ve ever encountered so I did not spend very much time on it.  Next on the agenda was to travel with our dedicated guide Uroš (name changed for privacy) to the nearby Gradac river to swim.  We took a very inexpensive taxi to the spot from which we would need to walk.  The ride was windy (not windy) and quite dangerous for any pedestrians which dared to traverse the narrow road which hugged the river.  We chose the river over the public swimming pool on account of the heat and the assumption that the majority of Valjevan’s (can I say this?) would choose to go to the pool causing it to become overcrowded.  What I didn’t expect, however, was that the river was also quite crowded.  The entire length of the small river which we traveled had no fewer than fifteen people at each location swimming, tanning, barbecuing, or drinking.

We continued by foot for another twenty minutes down twisting trails laden with stones which caused me to regret wearing sandals every time I stubbed my toe on a rock or protruding root.  Uroš led us to a small cave from which poured the river.  It was at this point the water was pure enough to drink.  Many of us did drink and somewhat surprisingly none of us became ill.  Finally we arrived at the spot in which we would spend the next several hours.

But because nothing is ever easy, before we were able to actually reach the spot, we first had to jump over a five foot tall concrete wall, walk across slippery, rusty pipes, and down a steep hill which forced us to leap over several gaps for a lack of proper footing.  Despite all this we somehow managed to arrive safely at a small clearing with still more stones beneath a few trees and beside a small waterfall which fell from the remains of what looked like an old aqueduct.  The water was frigid, possibly 50° F and the river bed was filled with sharp, jagged stones.  But the “purest river in Serbia,” as Uroš called it, provided much needed relief from the unusually warm weather.  Despite the cold I was reluctant to leave the water to the surprise of my freezing classmates.

After swimming in the shallow waters and fighting against the current to swim immediately under the waterfall I was invited to dive from an old dam probably built in the 50’s.  Of course, I was the only one to accept the invitation.  Considering the water was quite shallow and the drop quite far, the jump was quite exciting as I don’t typically risk my life in this fashion.  As I’m not a complete idiot, I watched carefully as others jumped so I would be sure to land where it was safe.  The water was only about five feet deep in this location.  To return to the diving spot (because of course I wanted to jump again) required the climbing of a rusty metal girder which resembled an extremely thin ladder large enough only for half of one foot.

This is all to say that the river was quite refreshing (and pure) and would have been a pleasant change of pace had we not elected to walk back to the dormitory in the 100° F heat.  The hike which took well over an hour prompted me to take yet another frigid shower immediately upon returning to the schoolhouse.  Needless to say, again I slept like a starfish.  I bought a fan the very next day.

Unfortunately, I neglected to bring my camera on this excursion so I don’t have any pictures of this location.  If any of my classmates have any please send them and I’d love to post them here.

The Old Bait and Switch

It was around 10:30 A.M. and nearly 100° when I arrived in Valjevo from Belgrade.   Despite the relatively early bus (9 A.M) and the late night I experienced in Belgrade, I found myself entirely unable to sleep during the journey.  This was completely unusual for me.  It was not because the lady sitting beside me was particularly fascinating (she didn’t say a word to me the entire trip) and not because the scenery wasn’t particularly beautiful (it really all looked the same after the first mile).  In retrospect I believe the lack of sleep foreshadowed the impending miserable disappointment of a day I was about to experience.

Some people took a taxi.

After getting off the bus, I walked across the street from the station and sat on small bench beside my bag and comically large 1.5 liter bottle of Aqua Viva (which I would later have to cut in half to refill).  I stared entirely too long at a screenshot of a map of Valjevo which I had taken before I left Belgrade in order to acquaint myself with my surroundings before I began the grueling 1 km hike to the school house.  The email instructions indicated that students taking part in the program should arrive at the school house between 12:00 pm and 10:00 pm to meet with our host families.  However, since I arrived an hour early, I did what I knew my grandfather would do in this situation and sat outside what I thought was the schoolhouse and refreshed myself with a beverage (the comically large bottle of water) while I waited for the appropriate time to enter the schoolhouse.

Valjevo Streets
I can’t see the sidewalk either.

Due to the extreme heat – and my acute awareness of a swarming mound of ants I unwittingly chose to sit next to – this hour felt as if it would never end.  To top things off, because this street and its sidewalk were so narrow, I was mere feet away from every passing car whose driver behaved as if it were on a divine mission to prove every negative Serbian stereotype.  This wait also allowed me to witness a proper Serbian wedding train.  This involves a parade of some twenty or thirty cars (of which no less than 50% are required to be Yugos) driving around town with Serbian flags held out the windows and some sort of wedding favors fastened to the dashboard.  To alert everyone of the holy union the drivers blared their car horns until exhaustion, either through mechanical failure of the automobile (it is a Yugo after all) or through the limits of human patience and endurance.  This train lasted longer than the hour I waiting and made multiple laps through the city.

Just when I thought I couldn’t sit in the hot sun for another minute, I noticed it was finally time for me to enter the schoolhouse.  Of course, the moment I waited for would only arrive after I discovered the fact that I had been waiting outside the wrong building the entire time.  After knocking on three wrong doors, which all went unanswered, I finally encountered a stranger in a back ally which kindly directed me to the correct address.  Thankfully, the schoolhouse was nearby and I was able to quickly arrive at the correct building where I would meet with the program director.  This is when I discovered that my time in Valjevo would be nothing at all as I had anticipated.

E-mail Excerpt
E-mail Excerpt

After pleasantries the director took me on a brief tour of the schoolhouse and showed me to my room.  That’s right, room.  As in there was no host family (I would later find out that there never were any host families).  I immediately noticed that the entire building was very much still under construction.  I must admit that the lack of a host family was quite a bit more than a disappointment as it was a very large part of the reason I chose this particular program.  The other reason I chose this program was that, in the past, I attended a different program in Belgrade through this same organization.  My previous experience with this organization was a positive and honest one, so being blind-sided in this way came as quite a surprise.  Despite this, the lack of WiFi in our rooms, and the brutal lack of any sort of climate control, the facilities were new, clean, and for the most part more than accommodating.  Because of the aforementioned reasons, I decided to reduce the duration of my stay from my planned six weeks to only three.

Trying to sleep
This is not an exaggeration.

After settling into my room I immediately attempted to sleep.  Because of the heat, it would have been unbearable to try to do anything else.  To anyone who would have happened upon me that afternoon, I might have appeared to be as a very large, hairy, fleshy starfish with each sweaty limb splayed out, soaking wet, writhing about on the bed in search of the coolest, driest possible location.  This turned out to be a wholly impossible endeavor.  I remained in this awkward state of being, awake and counting the laps of the wedding train, for much of the day which served to delay my meeting with any of the other students.  It would not be until I bought myself a small fan a couple days later that I would sleep comfortably.