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Terry's Big Adventures

After two months in the Balkans I was anxious to get back to the States and had two days to return my rental car at the airport in Skopje, Macedonia. But first I had to visit Kosovo.

I awoke to another sunny August morning. As usual the $20 price of the hotel included a ham and egg breakfast, which I ate on the front deck.


The Republic Of Montenegro (“black mountain”) looked just like the pictures I had seen--craggy mountains and rushing rivers, a sportsman’s paradise. It was pleasant driving over the pass to Kosovo. the pristine scenery was interrupted only by a communal dumping site.


Morning sun shone upon the chalets and mosques dotting the mountainsides. Muslim culture is evident in this part of Montenegro. These are Slavic muslims, similar to Bosniaks and not to the muslims in Kosovo. (Ethnicity in the Balkans can be very confusing.)


I arrived at the border at 10 am. A bridge across a gorge separates Montenegro from Kosovo. The first checkpoint was just a quick glance at my passport then I parked while officials did a computer check. The custom agent commented on my middle name. “Elvin--Elvin Bishop!” he exclaimed, impressing me with his knowledge of American pop culture. Three kilometers down the road I went through a U.N. checkpoint where they issued s special entry card. “You must show this upon leaving Kosovo,” the agent said.


The road wound along a peaceful reservoir. Some of the houses looked to be vacation cabins. I eventually passed the huge earthen dam that created the reservoir.



The heavy forest became sparse as the terrain leveled onto a plateau of farmland. I was now entering “Albanian” Kosovo. I had expected to see heavy war damage but by now most houses had been rebuilt and repaired--except for this one . . .



I stopped to take a picture of a war memorial that was the shape of Kosovo.


I took a detour into the center of a town and saw that most of the storefronts were brand new and crammed with merchandise. Just like their fellow countrymen, Albanians in Kosovo have embraced capitalism.


As I neared Pristina, the capital, all trees disappeared and traffic became congested. As in Albania, the drivers are crazy except there are fewer Mercedes. I was eventually funneled onto a hectic street and on the side of a high-rise was a gigantic mural of our ex-president smiling and waving. The caption read “WELCOME TO BILL CLINTON BOULEVARD.”


Pristina is so sprawled it was hard to tell if I was in the center of town. Commerce and construction was everywhere. I parked on a side street next to an old mosque and walked into a neighborhood with lots of shops. I tried to buy some juice with Serbian dinar but found only the euro was accepted. (I had spent my last fourteen euro on my hotel in Montenegro.) A nearby bank also refused to exchange my Serbian currency but they directed me to an ATM machine. Both internet cafes in the neighborhood were closed in the middle of a weekday so I snapped a few photos and headed out.




I consulted my map for the shortest route back to Serbia where I could spend my dinar on inexpensive meals and cheap hotels. I chose the shortest route east, a secondary “yellow” road that looked to be about twenty-five kilometers (fifteen miles) to the border.

My route soon took me into war-torn Kosovo--abandoned businesses, bombed-out houses, roadside cemeteries, and memorials with Albanian flags.



I passed a hydroelectric dam and entered a wooded recreation area. On the distant shore of the reservoir I could see swimmers enjoying the late hot afternoon.



COMMERCIAL: I rented my car from Alamo Car Rental in Ohrid, Macedonia where they treated me great. At the time they didn’t have a vehicle but within two hours procured a brand new Japanese Dihatsu from a local dealer. It was a 5-speed with a.c., had a nice stereo, and got 35 m.p.g. Cost: $700 plus $250 deposit for 30 days (including liability insurance). I loved that car and there’s nothing like having the freedom of movement when you’re traveling in strange countries. I was able to return it to the airport in Skopje where a young man met me at four o’clock in the morning. Despite having scraped the fender he gave me all of the $250 damage deposit back. I gave him some items I didn’t want to take back including a large electric fan that would have cost him two days wages ($20).

A few more kilometers and I was in a village where everyone stared at me as I drove by. The last building I saw on the outskirts of town was a large mosque, that is, what was left of it. It had been reduced to mostly rubble by artillery shells and minaret was missing its top.



Another kilometer and the pavement turned to gravel. I’d been on worse roads and besides, according to the map there were only a few more kilometers to go. I returned a wave to a boy and girl herding cows on the road.


Gravel gave way to dirt, then to ruts. I was now testing the limit of “Little D”, driving entirely in first and second gear while occasionally scraping bottom. I had to discern the route at several forks in the road as I started to ascend, then ascend some more.



I pulled over to let an oncoming military truck squeeze by. There were large stacks of freshly cut firewood on the side of the road and occasionally I could see a home in the distance. I had been on roads like this before in other eastern European countries. They were probably surveyed by an incompetent government worker who just drew a squiggle on his map and spent the rest of the day getting drunk.



Within a half hour I saw a power line. “Ah, civilization,” I thought. The road descended for a few kilometers and I sighed with relief when it turned to pavement. Within a hundred yards there was a large metal warning sign. In several languages it declared, “YOU ARE ABOUT TO ENTER THE REPUBLIC OF SERBIA. TURN AROUND”. “An unmanned border, I thought. “I’ll take my chances.” Then another sign-- “YOU ARE ABOUT TO ENTER THE REPUBLIC OF SERBIA. TURN AROUND”. If there were mines would they warn me? A small sign pointed to a Serbian memorial and I could see a cemetery on the side of a hill. Then another sign next to a prefab building. “POLICE. STOP”.


The three police officers nearly fell off their chairs when I sauntered in and greeted them with my fake Serbian accent. “Dobre dan” (“good day”). “Dobre Dan,” they replied. I handed my papers to them. None of them could speak English and they seemed confused. They couldn’t find the Serbian entry stamp on my passport nor did they have a computer with which to check my status. I used my map to explain my route had been via Croatia to Serbia to Montenegro to Kosovo. Not knowing what to do with me one of them used his cell phone to call a superior. After several minutes of gibberish he pointed in the direction from which I had just come. “Pristina,” he said. I pleaded to no avail and the youngest of the officers said “Sorry” in English. “Pristina,” the others said. I reluctantly got in my car, turned around, and let “Little D” express my frustration with a wake of gravel and dust.

The approaching dusk made me apprehensive as I drove faster. Within a few kilometers I pulled over for an oncoming police car followed by a military troop carrier. The police car stopped next to me and rolled down its window.

Officer: “Duetsch?” (Everyone in the Balkans assumed I was German.)

Me: “Nein, English,” I replied.

Officer: “Where are you going?”

Me: “Pristina.”

Officer: “Where have you been?”

Me: “At the police station at the border--they wouldn’t let me through.”

Officer: “You take peectures?”

Me: “Yes, I’ve been taking pictures in Kosovo.” (My policy with authorities is to always be friendly, courteous, and honest--in that order.)

Officer: “Let me see your papers.” I handed them through our car windows. “Turn off your vehicle and step out.”

It dawned on me that this was probably the superior officer the other had called. He was a good looking man, about six feet tall, perhaps in his late forties with gray hair. A woman police officer in her late twenties got out of the passenger seat while a civilian man in his thirties exited the back seat. I turned off the ignition but left the stereo on fairly loud. It was playing my CD, Instrument of Choice--my own soundtrack to the movie in which I was now starring.

The police officer motioned to the military vehicle. Three soldiers emerged from the back, armed with 50 caliber sniper rifles with silencers. They surround the scene in arms-ready position. One false move and I would be toast. (Most people in this predicament would be scared poopless. Call me stupid but I was relishing every second. I could tell this story for the rest of my life--if they didn’t shoot me.) My music was still playing as the officer spread a plastic tarp in the middle of the dirt road directly behind my car.

Officer: “Remove your suitcase.” I hoisted the suitcase from the back seat onto the road.

Officer: “Open it.” I complied. The policeman went right to the black plastic bag which he surely thought was filled with contraband. He reached in and pulled out my dirty underwear. He threw the bag on the tarp then quickly moved on to other items.

Officer: “What is this?”

Me: “Portable hard drive.”

Officer: “And this?” (Shaking a bottle of pills.)

Me: “Vitamins.” Meanwhile the woman officer, a real hottie, played the good-cop role.

Woman officer: “Where are you from?”

Me: “Seattle.” (I figured everyone’s heard of Seattle.)

Woman officer: “What are you doing here?”

Me: “Tourist--and that’s me on the stereo”

I showed her my CD cover. (Balkan cultures love music, respect musicians, and think you’re important if you have your own CD.) She grabbed it and showed to to the plainclothesman. They made a few comments in Serbian while nodding their heads, obviously impressed. Now they were on my side. However the soldiers never moved nor changed their serious expressions, their killer eyes hidden behind sunglasses. There was no telling how many Albanians they popped that afternoon. It was no wonder they were taking me seriously. They were in Albanian territory on an illegal patrol. Meanwhile the police officer completed the search of my suitcase.

Officer: “Open the trunk.” I opened the trunk an he went right to the long vinyl bag on top. Anticipating a rifle he quickly opened it only to find my electric guitar. His interest shifted to some electronic equipment. “What is this?”

Me: “A microphone mixer.”

Officer: “And this--and this?”

Me: “A harmonizer--effects pedal.” I explained I had been playing music in Macedonia.

The passenger compartment was next to be searched. He was unusually interested in a snow globe of the virgin Mary I had bought in Bosnia.

Officer: “What is this!?” he blurted while shaking it over and over.

Me: “A souvenir I bought for a friend at home.” It probably offended his religious and political sensibilities since Serbian Orthodox have no love for Croatian Catholics. On the other hand he completely ignored my laptop computer which could have contained all the fruits of my espionage.

Officer: “Open the hood.” He did a thorough inspection of the engine compartment, knocking on this part and that, still looking for that elusive stash of drugs.

The last track of my CD just finished. Satisfied or perhaps frustrated, the offer handed my papers to me.

Me: “Can I go across the border now?”

Officer: “No--Pristina.”

Me: “Can I take a picture of you guys?”

Officer: “No peectures.”

I was already pressing my luck. These Serbs would probably like nothing more than to plug some smug long-haired American and bury him in a shallow grave--some payback for having their bridges blown up by our fighter-bombers while Clinton was doing Lewinsky. Oh well, I had to be satisfied with costing the Serbian government a few man-hours. Must have put them out at least ten bucks.

I packed up my stuff and waited until I saw the military vehicle disappear in my rear window. It would soon be dark and I still had to make hay back to Pristina and find a hotel. Somehow I managed to retrace my route over the mountains past the abandoned houses, cemeteries, and war memorials.

My adrenaline subsided as I approached the outskirts of Pristina. After several tries I was able to find accommodations. The hotel was expensive by eastern European standards (25 euro with breakfast) but it was first class--modern, clean, and with a cable TV that worked. The young Albanian man that ran the hotel spoke English and invited me to sit and drink coffee with him. I told him of my episode, no doubt insignificant in comparison to what either he or his relatives had gone through. “I hate the serbs,” he said.

I ordered a chicken dinner for five bucks. As I waited for it the young man told me how much he liked the United States and that he would like to go there to work. “Good strong country!” he exclaimed. (The U.S. and Americans are respected everywhere in eastern Europe.)

After the excellent dinner I asked about the location of a market. An employee insisted he take me to his parents market just down the street while also showing off his Audi sedan. He was proud to introduce his “new American friend” to his parents and brother.



I had plenty of time in the morning to pack up, eat breakfast, and say good-bye to my new friends. They were busy preparing to host a wedding that day and the hotel was decorated to the hilt.


I decided to take the conventional (legal) way out of Kosovo, across the Macedonian border. Just south of Pristina I got caught in a speed trap. After some debate the officers decided to let me go, probably because I was an American. It was lunch time when I got to the border so it took an hour and a half to get through.


I drove straight to Alexander The Great Airport west of Skopje and made arrangements to drop off the car early next morning. Again, no one in Macedonia would exchange my Serbian dinar so I decided to drive the forty kilometers north to Serbia. There was a long slow line at customs and I waited an hour and a half to get through. A family of gypsies was taking advantage of the situation. They would walk up and down each line begging to every car several times. I must have been invisible because they did not approach me once.

DUH!! I could have walked across and used a border exchange but then I would have missed something totally unusual anywhere in eastern Europe. I stopped at a gas station where a man was refueling his pristine American vintage car. As he was explaining what it was to onlookers I strolled up and said, “1960 Chevy Impala convertible.” “YES, YES!” he exclaimed, excited that someone knew the significance of his treasured vehicle. That car had to cost a fortune in Serbia.