European Union, Catholicism and the Triple Gem

Wooden tiles line the floor of this Catholic monastery

Wooden tiles line the floor of this Croatian Catholic monastery

Many of the houses in the city of Vukowar, Croatia are left as a reminder of the Serbian-Croatian war.

Many of the houses in the city of Vukowar, Croatia are left as a reminder of the war.

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.

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Man of all trades with a really good heart, my host in Zabalj Gasha

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.

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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.

Blended apples awaiting distillation

Blended apples awaiting 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.

One of the three distills cranking out Rakija

The first step of distillation, the blended fruit is poured into this large copper still

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.

The amount of free sugar and temperature are constantly measured

The amount of free sugar and temperature are constantly measured

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!!

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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.

My friends and Marko the kitten in Zabalj, Serbia

My friends and Marko the kitten in Zabalj, Serbia

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.

Paint in removed, and frame is prepped for welding

Paint in removed, and frame is prepped for welding

Gaby under the knife

Gaby under the knife

Gaby is fixed for the next few thousand km, but will never make it to China

You can see from the weld the extent of the damage. Gaby is fixed for the next few thousand km, but will never make it to China 😦

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!!!!

Nikola and the welders

My Buddhist friend Nikola and the welders

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.

A catholic church destroyed in the war

A catholic church destroyed in the war

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.

Catholic incenser

Catholic incenser

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!

The road to Croatia

The road to Croatia

A collection of Serbian recipes

 

Complementary lunch at a guest house on the Danube

Complementary lunch at a guest house on the Danube

Sunset on the Romanian Riverside

Sunset on the Romanian Riverside

The northern, Romanian side of the Danube was far more interesting than the Serbian side. Other than the wild, ruthless packs of dogs waiting around every corner my trip back to Serbia was perfect.

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The road was is in very poor condition which kept traffic and commercial transport to a minimum, And rather than riding through a thick forests, the Romanian road was built directly on the rocky shores of river, and passed through several small villages. Locals fished and basked in the afternoon sun, and I pedaled west constantly in fear of being confronted by wild dogs. Most encounters resulted in a chase and on several occasions the dogs would grab hold of my panniers with their teeth and try to shake me from my bike,(Kevlar panniers anyone?). Completely defenseless, my only hope was to pedal as fast as possible, and wait until they give up their prey. Few dogs could keep up with me for more than a few meters but every once in a while a fast dog would bite at my feet and chase me far down the road.

Wild camping on the Serbian border

Wild camping on the Serbian/Romanian border

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Crossing the mountains on the border

From Romania I cycled back across the Serbian border to the city of Kovin, where I re-visited my friends from the fishing village of Dubavac. The night of my arrival, my host Dragan, prepared Sarma (mixed meat rolled in fermented cabbage) and we spent the evening sipping from his Serbian Rakia collection. Rakia is most commonly made from plum, but while at Dragan’s I tried Rakia made from Dunia, Apple, and Mulberry.

Sarma

Sarma

How to roll a Sarma

How to roll Sarma

Dragan invited me to stay in his guest house, and I slept peacefully away from the dogs in a cozy bed. The next day, I woke up early for a Serbian breakfast of Coffee and a double shot of Rakia. We then went to the local fisherman to and purchased close to 10 kilograms of fresh fish for the evening festivities. Dragan offers to cook his famous soup on his outdoor stove converted from an  old oil barrel.

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Dragan's homemade stove. Made from an old oil barrel

Dragan’s homemade stove. Made from an old oil barrel

Cook onions in oil till creamy

Cook onions in oil till creamy

Continue to stoke fire, corn cobs

Continue to stoke fire, corn cobs! A very memorable fragrant smell that permeates the countryside

 

Season with salt, paprika, pepper and ginger

Season with salt, paprika, pepper and ginger

Soup is ready for fish

Soup is ready for fish

Argue for a while over seasonings then drink a shot of Rakia

Argue for a while over seasonings then drink a shot of Rakia

Message in marinade

Massage with the marinade

Later on I joined Pesco, my other friend from Dubovac, for a late lunch with his family. We drank Rakia and I played around with his small collection of Serbian war toys. The sun went down, a small party was brewing in the backyard. A fish feast! Dragan’s famous soup and thin sliced fish fried in bacon fat. Rakia, wine, beer, and plenty of spongy Muslim bread, a fabulous night in the small village of Kovin!

Pesko and I. Sporting the Sajkaca!

Pesko and I. Sporting the Sajkaca!

From left Dragan, Pesko, Kume

From left Dragan, Pesko, Kume

Although communication is limited to broken English and my extremely poor Serbian, Dragan, Pesko and I had a great time hanging out and I felt very connected with both of them. My friends from another life.

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After another great breakfast of Rakia, black coffee and leftovers, Dragan gave me a spare Schwalbe tire and I said good-bye to my friends. I then cycled back to Zabalj where I am now staying with my other Serbian friends Jovan and his family.

Classic Serbian Breakfast, piroshka fried dough with cheese

Classic Serbian Breakfast, piroska fried dough with cheese

The weekend is prepped for more festivities, Sarma, Serbian doughnuts and more Rakia. Things are good in Serbia, but tomorrow I will continue west to the Monastery in Croatia.

The best bread can be found in Muslim bakeries. Ask for "Muslimanska Pekara"

The best bread can be found in Muslim bakeries. Ask for “Muslimanska Pekara”

The road to the Mediterranian and a Hindu Ashram

A cartload of Cabbage en-route to Belgrade

A cartload of Cabbage en-route to Belgrade

With a small spell of loneliness, I befriended a grape farmer in the southern Hungarian village of Szabadszallas. I had only cycled about 80 km, but was ready to stop for the day. Cycling near the center a nice man offered me grapes. We talked for a few minutes in broken English and Hungarian, and he offered me a camping space in his backyard. I set up my tent and cycled into the village to eat some local food. Wandering about on side roads in the dark I entered the community center, and walked in on a jazzercise class. More interested in me than the students the teacher informed me where I could find the only restaurant in the village, a small hotel converted into a pizzeria. Somehow my sausage pizza order was misunderstood for a breakfast pizza, and after a brief wait I was eating a pizza covered in runny scrambled eggs, and ketchup. Too hungry to complain I ate and felt comfortable in the warm evening.

Cotton in the country

Cotton in the country

Hungarian grapes

Hungarian grapes

After 8 pm the village become a ghost town and I pedaled slowly passed the wild dogs back to my hosts house. Almost all night the bell in the clock tower would sound on the half and full hour. To my surprise I was camped within 20-30 yards of the tower, and found it a bit hard to sleep. When the bell finally stopped ringing the local dogs started barking and suddenly my stomach started to feel funny. Hmm, runny scrambled eggs cheese, dough and for desert a bit of yogurt, did my host tell me where the bathroom was? Not wanting to turn my fellow grape farmers backyard into a toilet I ran across the street into a cow Pasteur and joined my fellow mammals for a squat. Do the stomach problems ever stop?

Tons of corn waiting the mouths of live stock

Tons of corn waiting the mouths of live stock

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After a few hours of sleep constantly interrupted by doggie chorus or an uneasy stomach, I opened my eyes to a rainy morning. I said goodbye to my host, packed my panniers full of grapes and cycled south. A rainy but beautiful morning! My thoughts drifted past the wet, cold countryside, and found a peaceful rhythm in my pedaling pattern. I had spent the earlier part of the following evening listening to dharma talks and today I started working on my new meditative cycling practice (to be explained later). Grapes, muesli, and dry bread kept me going till the earlier part of the afternoon.

Sarva Shakti a great host at the Hindu Ashram

Sarva Shakti a great host at the Hindu Ashram

Pedaling into the small village of Forraskut, the left crank arm on Gaby fell off. Shit, somehow I managed to unscrew the crankarm bolt and now I could only pedal with one leg. A few km down the road brought be to a guitar repair shop, where I played them my favorite Nirvana song in drop D, “On a plain”. Afterwards they found the right tools to put everything back together. Upon inspection I noticed the arm was bent, creating tension on the bolt in the bottom bracket, eventually leading to the crank arm falling off. Have you ever heard of a bent crank arm? Just after leaving the guitar workshop I saw sign advertising a Hindu Temple,here in the Hungarian countryside? The Marpa stupa in Northern Hungary was also a surprise but I have learned that Hungary is a very spiritual place, and anything is possible. 5 km on a side road brought me to the Nadaflava temple, situated on about 50 hectares of wheat, corn and pine trees. With a guest house and all the open space there was only one person living at the ashram. Sarva Shakti, a very nice lady from Luxembourg, welcomed me and let me stay for a few nights. The first day I woke up before dawn, and walked to the temple for the morning meditation, the temple was warm and I fell into a nice comfortable state of concentration. It rained all day, and I enjoyed the peaceful ashram till the following day. I departed the Ashram before dawn and pedaled the last 40 km of Hungary to the Serbian border.

My Serbian friends from the Village of Zabalj

My Serbian friends from the Village of Zabalj

Cycling the main highway I found a line of cars, and waited for more than an hour, inching my way toward the border check. After a few stamps on my passport and a quick look inside my panniers I was free to cycle into Serbia. Compared to the Hungarians and Poles, the Serbians are extremely friendly. Constantly cars would pass, honk and wave. Farmers from the fields would wave and employees in the stores and gas stations would enquire about my heritage and journey. (It is often to hard to say no to requests and I often find myself drinking beers at every café)

The bridge connecting the New to the Old city

The bridge connecting the New to the Old city, Belgrade

I met some new friends in the village of Zabalj and spent the night drinking beers and eating barbeque pork. (At times it is so nice being a foreigner, everyone is happy to meet you and eager to learn about the land you call home). Hung-over and sleep deprived I said goodbye and I pedaled the last 80 km to Belgrade. A very busy and extremely bike unfriendly city Belgrade has a very eastern feel. Departing from the American pop music constantly played in Northern Europe, Belgrade has lots of live middle eastern influenced music.

Old city building

Old city building

The city center, a very Santa Monica like Promenade, is packed all day with tourists and locals shopping in strip malls and department stores. The smell of roasted pork and spiced meats permeate the narrow alleys and pedestrians fight for space on the small sidewalks packed with parked cars. The city is broken into two districts the old city, located on the eastern side of the Sava river, and the new city on the western side. Several early 20th century buildings located in the new city were bombed during the Kosovo war, and they remnants remain as a symbol and a reminder of the war. I stayed in a full apartment with two other cyclists, Fanny and Bolaj, a European couple from France and Hungary and the residents Alex and Milica.

Serbian Gibanica, Filo dough, butter and cheese

Serbian Gibanica, Filo dough, butter and cheese

City Center, Belgrade

City Center, Belgrade

Although extremely hospitable I spent the two days on the sidelines, not quite feeling like the piece that fits. I cycled around the old city and viewed the Danube river from the top of ancient castle walls. I wandered through the small alleys and ate roasted pork with the locals. Bolaj and Fanny have been great travel companions in the city and in a way I envy their companionship.

Bolaj and Fanny

Bolaj and Fanny

One can become rather selfish spending so much time alone, and these qualities become more apparent when spending time with others, or maybe its just hard being the third wheel, either way we spent the weekend together in the city.  From Belgrade, I am headed to the Romanian border where I will cycle the euro-rail 6, a fantastic bike route along the Danube river, to the Djerdap national park. From Romania I will circle back north through Serbia and follow the Bosnia/Serbian border to the Tara national park and on to Sarajevo the capital of Bosnia. Still unsure about where to spend the winter, I now have all the pieces to my stove and a beautiful new tent thanks to the Klinefelters. I will write again shortly.  – Julian