Thursday, October 17, 2013

Country # 11: Serbia?!?!?

It makes you feel so welcome when you see a sign like this!

Borders and Melissa just don’t go together!!!!  I always have such a good laugh when I cross from one country to the next because it is never without an entertaining story.  In the 56 days I’ve been on the road, I’ve crossed 10 different borders in Europe and some have been very memorable, including today’s border crossing into Serbia!

A few days ago in my blog post, I explained my master plan to get across the Serbian border from Kosovo.  Since Serbia doesn’t recognize the Kosovo border as a legal entry point into Serbia, they will not accept anyone who has a Kosovo entry stamp in their passport.  My plan was to convince Kosovo authorities to not stamp my passport and show my Spanish residence card at the Serbian border.  I had asked around for some advice and this seemed to be the best way to attempt to enter the country.  Oddly enough, when planning my route through Serbia to go to Bulgaria, even Google Maps rerouted me through Kosovo, then Macedonia.

Of course, the stubborn and determined person that I am, an attempt to get through the Serbian border was much more enticing than back tracking along my previous route through Kosovo and Macedonia.  This morning, after my visit to The International Learning Group in Pristina, I set off east to Gjilan, then to the Serbian border. I found it odd that there were no signs in Gjilan to direct me to the Serbian border, which is only about 17km away.  The locals directed me to the road to Presevo, Serbia, and it was eerily empty.  The only cars that passed me had Serbian plates.  The road was a touch climb with an 11% grade for many sections.  I couldn’t complain because it was about 6 degrees Celsius outside and the climbing kept me nice and warm. 

When I finally made it to the top and the border I was surprised at the signs I encountered.  There were two identical signs 1000m and 500m from the Serbian border that read “You Are About to Enter Serbia- Turn Around.”  I couldn’t believe it!  Never had I seen such a sight and it was the creepiest feeling I had felt my entire trip.  When I got about 200 meters from the border there were people on the side of the road just sort of starring at me as I rode past.  It looked like they had just crossed the border and were waiting to be picked up and taken into town in Kosovo, or maybe they were waiting to cross the Serbian border, I couldn’t figure it out.  The closest town on either side of the border was 15 km.

Despite what the signs said, I proceeded (do you expect any less from me?). I had my Spanish/EU ID all ready to show the border.  First came the Kosovo crossing and the two men at the booth were completely shocked when they saw me roll up.  They asked for my ID and were surprised a “Spaniard” spoke such good English.  One of the guards got out of the booth to further inspect my bike.  He started sharing his interest and stories about biking and I realized I was being interrogated, but out of his own curiosity.  He was friendly, but I was getting a bit anxious as I could see the Serbian border just ahead and wanted to get on my way.  He finally wished me luck, I gave him a little business card for The Loong Way Home and I pedaled on to the Serbian booth. 

The Serbian officer asked for ID and asked where I was from.  I told him Barcelona as I gave him my residence card.  He studied it for a long time and eventually asked me if I had another form of ID, like a passport.  I handed him my passport and he flipped through the pages.  He kindly wished me happy birthday, which made me think my plan was going to work.  I continued to sit anxiously on my bike as he called over another border patrol and together they went back and forth in a confused sort of tone trying to figure out my Spanish ID.  By now there were about 4 cars behind me and they still didn’t know what to do.  Another officer came out of the booth from across the road and wanted to be informed about the situation.  He asked me where I had been, where I was going, and what I was doing on my bike.  I explained to him where I had been, and told him I was a teacher who visited schools and I had a school waiting for me in Presovo.  Of course that wasn’t true, but I thought it would help my chances of getting across.   Actually, the Serbian officers where quite nice as soon as they heard what I was doing and they were very interested in all the details of my trip, but they weren’t letting me pass.

Soon there was a good line of traffic behind me as the 4 border patrol officers examined my ID and they asked me to pull up and wait so other cars could pass.  They went back to the booth on the other side of the road with my ID and at this time the Kosovo border police who was fascinated by my trip had come over upon the requests of the Serbs because they needed a translator.  He was definitely on my side and let me know in English while the other Serbian officers were busy examining my documents.  He told me he was going to do everything he could to help, but that in fact, he was even violating the law at the moment because he and I were officially on Serbian soil and it was illegal.  He explained to me what I already knew about not being able to enter Serbia from Kosovo, and I told him that I had known this but was determined to get across.

Just when I thought there weren’t any more Serbian officers on the premises another Serbian patrol guard appeared who looked like the main “boss” of them all.  He fit the role of any sort of Hollywood military leader: tall, intimidating, spoke harshly, no English, never cracked a smile, and did not have a tender spot on him!  He was however, accompanied by a European Union officer which was a relief for me.  I was certain the EU officer would step up and over rule any decision the Serbs made and let me cross the border.  After all, isn’t the EU suppose to promote peace and help resolve conflict?

Unfortunately this EU officer didn’t say much, and he failed to convince the Serbian boss that my Spanish Residence card was indeed an official form of ID.  Again the boss went back inside his booth to try to determine if the Spanish ID was valid.  I do have a valid Spanish residence card as I just renewed it before my trip, but I’m not Spanish and I didn’t have a Serbian entrance stamp in my passport, that was the problem.  As I sat anxiously the crowd of officers all started asking me questions: How many kilometers I ride?  Why I ride alone?  Where is my family? Why on bike? I really should have invited them to my next school visit, but then again, crossing the border for them, might be difficult.  They were completely enthralled by a solo female cyclist and to tell you the truth, if it were up to them, they would have let me cross the border.  They seemed to support what I was doing, in fact, one of them volunteered another to come along with me.  However, it was the main “boss” who had the final word and when he reappeared, the Kosovo officer translated for him, telling me that I had to go back to where I came from and cross the border from Macedonia to enter Serbia.  I showed him my map, the temperature on my GPS (now 5 degrees Celsius) and showed him the 15 km of land that I wanted to pass through in Serbia and tried one last time.  My translator communicated this to him, but he didn’t take pity on me. I gave him a little Loong Way Home card with all my pride, I looked at him in the eyes and told him it was a shame that his country thought that a solo female cyclist who was visiting schools and cycling around the world was a threat to his country.

I could tell that all the other officers felt bad for me, but I quickly turned my bike around after being at the border for a good half hour, trying to keep my cool in front of them as I pedaled back to Kosovo.  Of course my immediate response was rage.  I wasn’t mad that I had 50 km to cycle from where I detoured, but I was enraged by the stupidity of politics and the fact that innocent people are always affected by the decisions a of few powerful people.  In a way I felt violated! I was the victim of a foolish and bitter decision made by some politician.  I could empathize with war victims and innocent civilians during a conflict because all they wanted to do was live their normal life.  Just as all these mixed feelings about nationalists, politics, and war started racing through my mind, a car pulled up next to me.  The window rolled down and a man said something about taking me to Gjilan.  I stopped, looked at my bike and his big SUV, and didn’t hesitate to accept his offer.  You know what?….This isn’t cheating, this is revenge!  I was going to have him drop me off where I detoured to go to the Serbian border and then pedal back as far as I can to the Macedonian border before night came. 

Ironically, his license plates were from Serbia.  From what I understood, he had seen me at the border and wanted to help out. Nagip was an Albanian-Serb who hardly spoke English, but during the short car ride he was able to explain to me a bit about the region and the Serbian conflict from the war. He wouldn’t let me set out on my bike again until he had treated me to a coffee.  So we had a coffee and set off again pedaling as fast I could to make the most of my day light hours.  How ironic was it that a Serbian and an American were enjoying each other’s company while our leaders couldn’t figure out how to do the same?

Nagip, an incredibly kind Serbian, unlike his country's border patrol.
So where am I exactly?  I made it to the Kosovo-Macedonian border after my attempt to cross the Serbian border.  Yes, I did step foot in Serbia, no I didn’t get a stamp, so country number 11: Serbia, is obsolete, it will have to be Bulgaria! Am I mad that my attempt to cross the Serbian border failed?  No way! I had a really interesting experience that definitely changed my perspective on the way I view 21st century political conflicts.  I do hope that the Serbian boss is thinking twice about his decision to not let me through, and I hope that the nice Kosovo border patrol officer who translated for me and also liked to ride his bike emails me!   

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