My winter's tale of Balkan adventures seems to be becoming a regular fixture. For the 3rd
year running we have had an adventurous ski holiday, on each occasion, the adventure being just the getting there!
This year's has to win the prize though. We set off at 6a.m to drive to Bosnia; through Albania, through Monte Negro & up into the mountains where Paddy Ashdown goers skiing. An 8 hour trip.
(Above, a digger removing an avalanche from our mountain road!)
We got to the capital of Monte Negro, Podgorica in 5 hours. This was where the snow started. Our speed halved from 80km to 40 kmh. It was falling thickly, the roads were covered & there were no snow ploughs in sight.
The conditions carried on getting worse & worse. Fog, sleet, snow. As we drove up the Tara canyon to the Bosnian border, through tunnels & a winter wonderland of thick icicles & snow laden pines, we came to 6 cars stopped on the road. Ahead the road just ended, in a wall of snow & beyond it was a digger digging out the road which had a massive landslide of snow across it. It was about 20 feet high. The children wondered if the digger would unearth a car beneath this avalanche. It had obviously happened very recently. Fortunately no car was buried. This little event took an hour.
We also had to keep putting on & taking off the snow chains so as not to damage the tyres, as the road wavered between slushy covered tarmac & snow packed roads.
By 7p.m we were just getting to the turn off to climb into the mountains where we were advised the road was impassable (it was also dark & snowing heavily) So we had to take a long detour. By this point we had been going 13 hrs (had had 1 coffee stop but no lunch stop, to make the most of the light, & run out of rolls, tangerines & biscuits) & we were getting anxious about our 4 wheel drive which wouldn't disengage when we changed to 2 wheel drive. (We were later to learn another useful piece of mechanical advice; you just reverse to disengage it. That knowledge could have saved us 600Euros).......
At 8 p.m 14 hours after leaving Tirana, we heard the noise we were dreading, as something ominous made a sudden, horrible grinding clanking sound & we ground to a halt On the side of a mountain road, in the dark, snowing lightly, very few cars passing, -15 degrees & 8 o clock at night..
Now what, we thought? No international breakdown recovery, in a foreign country, where we didn't speak the language.... We did the only thing we could do; phoned the guy we were renting our ski chalet from. And said 'Help!' We waited in the car with no heating in -15 for 2 hrs.
Zlatko turned out to be our guardian angel. We couldn't have asked for better help if we had constructed a detailed job description. He spoke fluent English, was calm, efficient, & so very, very kind. He called a breakdown recovery service, (turns out they didn't want to help because, understandably, we didn't have an account with them, but in true Balkan style, he knew the general manager so 'persuaded' them to help). He kept calling us back with updates, then drove from the ski resort to where we were (a 50 min drive) to collect me & the children to take us to the ski resort, whilst Mr Ngo waited with our car & went with the breakdown vehicle into Sarajevo (a 1.5 hr journey).
We arrived at the resort at 11.45p.m. We were greeted by Zlako's parents & given apple cinnamon baklava & warmed up by the roaring wood burner in the cosy wooden chalet. Meanwhile Zlatko drove back into Sarajevo, another 50 minute drive, met Mr Ngo at the garage & took him back to his own apartment where he put him up for the night. The following morning he drove both of them back to the ski resort.
Today, Christmas Eve, his parents drove us from the ski resort into Sarajevo to collect our mended car, which had had to be moved to another garage which could find & fit a spare 4x4 part. Zlatko paid the bill at the first garage. He has been phoning the garage & checking progress.
It turned out the car wasn't ready. So we went ice skating at the rink where Torvil & Dean won gold in the 1984 winter Olympics & then Zlatko who insisted on meeting us, & this is where it gets really embarrassing, drove us to to the garage so we could collect our suitcase of Christmas presents left in the car. Our old Isuzu was jacked up 6 feet in the air on a ramp, with another car under it in a tiny crowded garage, so after the mechanic had given Mr Ngo a guided tour of the underside of our vehicle pointing out all the (many) other things wrong with it, or badly mended in Albania, they had to then get a ladder out & Zlatko & the mechanic held it whilst Mr Ngo climbed up it, opened the back door & climbed in to retrieve the suitcase & our Dwarf Christmas Tree, emerging seconds later wobbling atop the ladder & waving the midget pine triumphantly aloft. This was just too much, I couldn't watch, I felt so awful about the whole debacle. The kids reasoned with me:
“Mum, it's not at all embarrassing, we're children & everyone knows children like presents. It IS Christmas Day tomorrow after all.”
Zlatko then drove us back to his apartment where his parents took us back to the ski resort. No amount of arguing, protesting, offering remuneration for petrol etc. prevailed. They said they felt bad for us that the snow had all melted on day 3 & wanted to help give us a good holiday! However they did finally accept our liquid & edible presents offered under the guise of “Christmas.”
I am sure hospitality is as much a part of Bosnian culture as it is in Albania & frankly it puts the West to shame. How many of us would put ourselves out this much for people who were strangers & foreigners merely renting an apartment from us? And refuse to accept any remuneration, petrol money & wave aside our profuse thanks as if it were nothing. It was a truly humbling experience.
This man was a civilian defender in Sarajevo during the 92-95 siege of Sarajevo. He was on the front-line. With generosity of spirit & character like his, I am not surprised the indomitable Sarajevans held out during the longest siege in modern history with no water, gas or electricity for 3 ½ years. They coped & persevered in horrific & dangerous conditions, being targeted by Serbian snipers in the hills as they went about their daily lives. They helped each other & kept going against the odds. A great fictional account, but based on real life stories is 'The Cellist of Sarajevo' by Stephen Galloway, which gives a graphic example of what daily life was like.
I am sure the war taught the Sarajevans something we have learned living in a foreign culture where infrastructure is not always established & where it is not always possible to be self sufficient. That is, that we are interdependent. We need each other & we should do all we can to help our fellow neighbour. And it is something we feel privileged to have experienced on many an occasion.
The original parable of the Good Samaritan was Jesus' response to the question 'Who is my neighbour?' when Jesus said we should “Love our neighbour.” The answer given showed that our neighbour is not the person who lives next door, or someone local or someone who can repay us or simply our friends. In the story the man who actually helped the injured man was a foreigner, an alien, a hated person amongst Jews, a man of different, or no religion, a merchant, who knew the value of time & money & the 'cost' of helping, but he extended the hand of practical friendship & did all he could for the man.
In much the same way as our Sarajevan Samaritan did for us.