A small red car. Croatian number plate. It already looks a bit packed. What are the chances? We are on a Yugoslav petrol station awash with packed holiday cars. The restaurant bar is plastered with a halo of brightly flashed photos of very similar dishes on offer; meat and fries.
Oh well, asking never hurts.
“Where you from?”
“Ah. Where you going to?”
“We want to get to Sarajevo today.”
It is hard to gauge his attitude. His stern expression and sunglasses are saying ‘tough luck, hitchers’, but there is some curiosity seeping through. If we have any chance at this ride, he will be the link.
“Well, let me ask the others.”
A middle aged man and a younger woman come walking back from the restaurant. The same sunglasses. The same stern look. The man clearly is no fan of the idea: he gestures at the fully packed trunk. Link has another stern look at the trunk. Still, he starts arguing. The girl keeps out. We wait, floating in between. This can go any way.
“Ok, you can come with us.”
Is this really going to fit? We pile in the back seats with our huge bags. The man and he girl get in front. If Link wants to have the hitchers, he can sit with them.
“Where are you driving to?”
“We’re actually going a bit over the border.”
“Ah, so you live in Bosnia?”
“Well, no… I live in Australia. Sydney. I’m visiting my family. My brother and his daughter here just picked me up from the airport.”
I’ve heard about Australian Croats before. In this ethnically mixed region, it never occurred to me that they could also be from ‘Bosnia’.
A long silence. Link stares sternly ahead through his sunglasses.
“How long are you gonna stay in Bosnia?”
“At least a couple of months. It’s been a long time since I’ve been here, you know. I want to get to know my country a bit better.”
Didn’t expect that from a Croat. Or is he actually? My country.
Another long silence. Link doesn’t look comfortable being pressed against the window. Our legs are killing us.
“You know why I actually took you guys?”
“I was a hitcher before. Did all of Yugolavia. I know how it is.” A smile from under the sunglasses.
They drop us off at least 50 kilometres over the border on an intersection with a huge (at least for Bosnian standards) petrol station. It’s three in the afternoon; Sarajevo is 200 kilometres away. This can’t go wrong.
After one and a half gruelling hours in the hot sun, we are finally picked up by a white van. The drivers don’t speak any English or German. Instead, they open a can of beer, offer us a can too, ignore the seat belts and hit the gas.
We are dropped off on the side of a quiet road. How will we ever get moving here? After five minutes, the answer stops. “Yes, Zenica! Come!”
Again no German, a bit of broken English and a lot of gesture language. “Oooh, to Sarajevo?” No good. No good.” He moves his hands from up to down, indicating it will soon be dark. “Zenica, good!”
As we approach Zenica, the sun has indeed moved behind the surrounding mountains. Yugoslav factories huddle around the small river going into town. A petrol station looms within sight.
“Ahhh….we….petrol station, ok? Petrol station? Benzin?” I gesture with all my might, moving my hands from Diny and me towards the station, wishing they could just lift us both up and drag us over in the process. Our driver is unfazed.”No, petrol no good. Sarajevo…no.” He smiles as broad as he can. “Zenica, good!” And he exits the motorway into town.
Now we are getting tense. What is the guy’s problem? Why doesn’t he understand?
Ah, you were expecting something?
As we ride about the place, he takes the time to show us his hometown-paradise. “Look, station futbol,” he gestures with some pride to the dilapidated structure. “Nice?”
“Yes, yes…” I mutter.
“Here, post gebau. Nice.”
“Sarajevo, Sarajevo?” Diny demands from the back seat. “Ah, Sarajevo no good,” is the answer, again moving his hands up and down.
“No, no, Sarajevo, Sarajevo!” Diny returns, now angrily. “Autostrada!”
“Yes! Sarajevo! Autostrada!” she gestures wildly towards the motorway.
“Ok, ok…” it comes out surprised. He gives us an indignant look. What’s up with those people?
Within five minutes he drops us off at an intersection next to the motorway entry. The light is fading fast now. We press our sign “SARAJEVO” to the passing cars with all the passion we could muster, begging for a ride. After fifteen minutes, our hope begins to fade. It’s getting dark. We’re not gonna make it.
Thought you were entitled to this? Face it, you’re not. Suck it up.
A ramshackle dark-blue Volkswagen stops right at our feet. A young woman gets out and opens the trunk. “Yes, Sarajevo. Come.”
Not a single word is spoken to us; the two lovers only have an eye for each other, making love with their words, whatever they are saying. They chatter, drink and smoke endlessly as he pushes the battered relic over the brand new stretch of highway; the air is thick with their smoke.
And in the distant dark, a cluster of lights now becomes visible, indicating we are closing in on our salvation. Finally.
This place is becoming more and more damned as the sun continues to climb. The heat is getting intolerable; the holiday cars and forbidding sunglasses even more so.
Suddenly the Spaniards have had it. “We’re off man, we can’t stand this any longer. We’ll try to walk towards Niš. Good luck here.” And off they go, fourteen kilometres to go in the scorching sun, following the highway tracks.