I left the hostel in Belgrade during a break in the rain to head south and entered the unofficial territory of barky-dog land: A strange part of Serbia where stray dogs look at you, yet domesticated ones chase you for miles and snap at your spinning ankles. Some towns seem to be composed entirely of car-repair shops and currency exchange offices. Houses are quite big and with big gardens, but people here have very little money.
First night of the journey was a little orchard where the once tasty plums were left to wither on the cold trees. Recently, I’d been feeling a lot like those plums. After a few hours in my tent I left the relative warmth of my sleeping bag to return outside. Standing up had finally caused the previously unmoved food to be digested, having eaten dinner hunched in my sleeping bag and then lying down to read. It was a tin of tuna and some dry bread. I didn’t buy the cheapest tin, obviously. But even at 80p I was still so confused and disgusted at what part of the fish I was actually eating that I could only eat half of it. The rest sat in the tin inside a poly bag outside the tent. It somehow became my duty to defend the litter from the wild dogs that could be heard crawling around and coughing from sickness—occasionally making noises to scare them away throughout the night.
It was cold and raining constantly. I really just wanted to be warm. In fact, what I really wanted was a nice cup of tea huddled up in my sleeping bag before I went to sleep. But I didn’t have any stove gas, and this was the last place I would find any. So I thought I’d make another beer-can stove, as I recall giving the other one away during the summer.
Cheaper than soft drinks, beer isn’t exactly hard to come by in Serbia. Even so, it seemed a shame to buy a can of beer just to pour it out. So I bought the cheapest beer in the shop, Tuborg, at 30p for half a litre. Next door was a pharmacy, just the place necessary to buy the fuel. “Alcohol,” I said to the woman behind the counter in my best Slavic accent. The woman looked pretty terrified. It was only then I realised how scary I looked. I was completely soaked head to toe. My sodden beanie had sunk over my forehead and a buff wrapped round my face meant only my eyes were showing. There was a little pool of water around me. And there I was, asking for alcohol in a pharmacy with a can of beer in my hand.
When I got back to my bike I decided that I wasn’t going to drink the beer. The last thing I want to do is drink something cold. So I sighed, opened it, took a swig just to make sure it was crap beer and then felt better about pouring it out onto the pavement. I seem to have a faint recollection that the only other time I’ve wasted a beer like this was in the presence of two police officers.
It’s been pretty hard to adjust to the cold and rain after five months of nearly unbroken sunshine. My luck has finally run out. Getting soaked on a bike ride isn’t so bad when you know you can head home for a warm shower and a change of clothes. In constant rain, probably you’ll be spending most of your time indoors, and occasionally going outside. For me, it’s the opposite. I spend nearly all my time outside and the few times I go indoors will be to linger around that warm part of the supermarket next to the door. I get around life by putting big poly bags over my socks, and treading into forests searching for dryish pieces of wood.
But at least now, I can have a warm cup of tea before bed.
Check out my stove in action…