My two days in Zabalj were very entertaining! After learning about my fascination with Rakija, my hosts organized a trip to the local “Pecara” (Rakia distillery). Since his car was at the repair shop, Gasha, my host, saddled up his horse and together with his family, we rode around town and to the distillery.
Traveling by horse buggy is nothing uncommon for the people in Zabalj, and many cars passed us on the small local roads. The distillery was located on outskirts of town on a large parcel of land covered with plum trees. The owner, his wife and son greeted us and invited us into the back. There in an open stone structure, surrounded by barrels full of Rakia and crates of apples was the distillery.
The first step to making good Rakia is to get the best apples or fruit available. Meaning grow your own! On location were acres of fruit trees. Once the fruit ripe it is then blended, and mixed with sugar and filtered water in a large barrel. The mixture sits in the barrel for up to ten days (depending on the fruit) and awaits distillation.
The mixture is then placed in the first still and distilled at a low temperature. The distillate cannot be consumed and must be distilled another 1-2 times, (depending on alcohol concentration desired) before being consumption.
According to the owner, the first distillate contains lots of metals and is too hazardous to drink, (a few years back several people died from drinking poorly distilled rakija!). The second distillate, is very sweet and similar to a Sherry. The third and final distillation is the true Rakija.
Personally, during the afternoon hours, I prefer the second distillate, but to save face I drank a few shots of the final distillate with the employees. The owner was extremely kind and gave me a bottle from his special collection after the tour! RAKIjA!!
The next day, while packing Gaby for the road, I discovered a large crack where the seat tube connects to the bottom bracket. A bit worried about the safety and strength of the frame, I decided to ride to the city of Novi Sad to find a welder.
The Novi Sad has a “hip” bicycle repair café called “Cultural Exchange-Bike Kitchen” run by some expats and a few locals. However nobody working there knew anything about bikes! And worse where I could find a welder. Unlike the bike kitchen aspect the Cultural Exchange was in full swing! From all corners of the café I could hear stuff like “when I was in Bangladesh” or “the political system in south east Russia is so corrupt”…. Few minutes later I struck up a conversation with a local named Nikola. We talked for a little while and then I told him my problems with Gaby and that I was trying to get to Croatia for a meditation retreat. It turned out that Nikola was also a Buddhist, who practiced the Thai forest tradition, (the same tradition that my father practiced before coming to America). He was very well read in the Buddhist lineage and planned to visit Metta forest monastery, (which is about 60 km from my home town), when he came to California. He also knew of a place where I could get my bike welded. Afer chatting for a while he invited me to stay at his apartment with him. Later that evening while meditated, I recited the Pali Triple Gem, (a Thai Buddhist Chant that my father taught me when I was a boy) and to my surprise Nikola chanted along with me! I slept comfortably and the next day we cycled around town to find the welder.
Upon hearing about my journey to Southern China, the welders fixed my bike free of charge and said ‘Mi Srbi nemamo mnogo sem da budemo darežljivi” – meaning ‘ We Serbs don’t have much but to be generous’. The damage was more profound then expected, and it looks like Gaby will not make it to China!!!!
I said goodbye to Nikola and cycled the road to Croatia. Unlike Serbia and Romania, Croatia is part of the European union. Meaning that the country has significantly lower debt and can qualify for extensive loans from the rest of the Union. These differences become apparent immediately after crossing the border. Fancy cars, remodeled houses, and children walking to school in name brand clothes. The symbol of the west is here, and its also reflected in the prices (Almost everything I have purchased in Croatia is twice as expensive as Serbia).
About 20 km after the border, I cycled through the city of Vukovar, which suffered extensive damage during the Serb-Croat war. Many houses and buildings still had bullet holes and outside of the city was a large memorial cemetery.
I am currently in a bit of a time crunch. In order to arrive at the monastery in western Croatia by 4pm on Saturday I need to ride 400 km in the next three days. Currently my plan is to wake up at 5 am tomorrow and ride 180 km, then 120km on Friday followed by 100km on Saturday. Hopefully arriving at the monastery just in time for the evening mediation.
The retreat is a traditional 7 day Chan Zen retreat. Each day will begin at 5 am, and will be spent in formal and informal meditation practice. Rules of silence (no talking and no communication, e-mail and phone included) will also be observed. I will try to get around to writing again before the retreat begins but due to my the crunch it may not happen. Either way all is well here and I wish you all the same!