Vagabond Hiker Scholar – Francis Tapon

If there is a modern day heir to the great traveler/scholar Ibn Batutta – I would say that Francis Tapon is the guy. His latest book is a masterpiece of travel and will surely be quoted and referenced for the next decade- especially as the Eastern Europe that he has spent so much time coming to know, slowly goes away. The Hidden Europe:What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us is more than just a travelogue- it is a cultural and historical guidebook which is both intensely personal and incredibly helpful in coming to understand the places he has visited.

This is not a small book – it is a massive tome filled with economic, historical, and political data that somehow manages to come across as entertaining and at times even light reading – don’t expect to read even a single chapter in one session – in fact, I would say that this book is something that you will reference again and again – especially if you have an interest in Eastern Europe or if you are traveling in Eastern Europe.

Francis not only spent three years cris-crossing through Eastern Europe, hiking, making friends and coming to understand the people and the cultures – he has also walked across America four times, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, and in 2007, became the first to do a round-trip on the Continental Divide Trail. He is the author of Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Lessons from Backpacking Across America and The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. I can hearily recommend both – start with this interview and then get his books at WanderLearn with Francis Tapon – just cruise his site for a few minutes and you’ll be hooked.

Vagobond: I was introduced to you when I was doing research on the great vagabonds of the past. A librarian I met in Portland, Oregon told me – “Never mind the dead vagabonds – you should interview Francis Tapon.” Francis, when I looked at your site and started reading your adventures, I was simply blown away. At that time I think you were sleeping in a tent outside of Venice….Can you perhaps tell my readers how you started traveling? Was it always in this (pardon this) completely awesome style you travel in now?

Francis Tapon: I started traveling since I was born. Because I had a Chilean mom and a French father, my family would have to fly 10 hours to see a relative. My first independent trip was right after I graduated from college. It was a standard rite of passage: 75 days in Western Europe with my best high-school friend. Although we went to Prague and Budapest (which was somewhat unusual in 1992), most of the trip was pretty typical for college grads. We stayed in hostels or cheap hotels most of the way. My travel style didn’t change until after I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2001. Once I learned to camp in the wilderness for months, getting a bed/shower/roof seemed optional. And once couchsurfing.org took off, it added another dimension that helped me meet locals more easily than ever.

Vagobond: One of the things that always hits me about your writing, both on the web and in your books is the academic nature of it. I always feel like I’m there with you, but at the same time, I feel like I’m attending a lecture at the explorers club because of the history, culture, and texture that you bring to your travels. Do you have an academic background? Also, in terms of reading, what writers/authors influenced you the most?

Francis Tapon:Although I went to Harvard Business School, I don’t have an academic background (I have no PhD). In fact, I dislike how academia writes, which is why my style of writing is extremely casual. Michael Krasny called it “idiosyncratic” and “unorthodox.” While I like to tackle intellectual subjects, I try to do it in an entertaining way. Academic writing is usually boring and long-winded. I prefer a punchy style that still remains informative and profound. Whether I achieve that is for the reader to judge.
Bill Bryson has influenced me the most. I love his books. The biggest difference between us is that I tend to get more dirty than he does and I take bigger risks when I travel. His style of writing is refined than mine too–I can be more crass and controversial than him.

Vagobond: Did you always know you wanted to be an explorer and adventurer? Did you ever get blown off track? How did you find your way back?

Francis Tapon:Until I hiked the Appalachian Trail (age 31), I lived a pretty standard life. That journey transformed me. I did get blown off track twice. First was after the AT, when I consulted for Hitachi for 2.5 years. Then again after my first trip to Eastern Europe (2004), when I consulted for Microsoft for 18 months. Those four years of work weren’t wasted though: I’ve been living off the money I earned in those two jobs ever since. I always knew those would be temporary gigs, but it still takes discipline to leave a job that pays well. Income is addictive.

Vagobond: In reading The Hidden Europe, I was particularly blown away by the sections on Serbia and Russia. Russia, I kind of expected to be incredible, but with Serbia, I learned more about the country from reading your book than from traveling there myself! I had terrible experiences in Serbia, but reading The Hidden Europe made me want to go back and re-experience it. Can you perhaps explain why the Serbs are so completely misunderstood by the world? I ask because after reading your book, I certainly feel like I misunderstood many things.

Francis Tapon:Whenever we fight a war, we nearly always demonize the people we are fighting. It makes it easier to justify attacking a nation when you tell yourself that rotten things are going on there. The Western media demonized Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars instead of trying to understand them or to explain their point of view. This doesn’t mean Serbia was flawless, but I sought to understand the Serbs.

At the same time, as travelers we have to be careful about drawing broad conclusions based on a few encounters (or many encounters in a small region of the country). Perhaps I was lucky and met a bunch of wonderful Serbs while you met a bunch of jerks. I lived 18 months in the ex-Yugoslav countries so I feel that my assessment is pretty accurate, but I could have been lucky.

Vagobond: As a writer and traveler, there are a few destinations I keep to myself. I don’t want the world to know about them. Sometimes, though, I let people know about a hidden gem here or there. In all your travels in Eastern Europe, did you come across any of these gems you might be able to tell us about?

Francis Tapon:I loved Kotor, Montenegro. It’s a magical place for me.

Vagobond: Narrow escapes. Anyone who has traveled a bit has had more than a few of these, or else, they probably wouldn’t be travelling any longer. What about you? In your travels, can you tell us about one narrow escape?

Francis Tapon:I went for a 16-mile day hike in Olympic National Park, but ended up getting lost for 3 days. I had no sleeping bag, no shelter, no light, no food. It snowed. I saved my partner’s life twice. We both got frostbite and infections.

Vagobond: The subtitle of The Hidden Europe is ‘What Eastern Europeans can teach us.” – First of all- when you say ‘us’ who are you talking about? Secondly – while I found the entire book to be thought provoking, can you perhaps point to three of the most important lessons of it?

Francis Tapon:“Us” is mainly “us Americans,” but Western Europeans don’t know much about Eastern Europe either. Even Eastern Europeans don’t know much about Eastern Europe! So ultimately “us” is “everyone.”

Three lessons:
1. Communism doesn’t work. For over 40 years, many countries throughout the world experimented with various flavors of a tightly controlled state – none of them worked. Let’s not forget that when people declare that we need a revolution that delivers us a paternalistic government.
2. A simplified tax policy. Most Eastern Europeans have flat taxes. I never met an Estonian who took more than 10 minutes to do their taxes. This helped fuel their growth in the last 20 years.
3. Celebrate depopulation. Eastern Europe is depopulating faster than any other region on Earth. Although many countries are fighting it (by giving incentives to reproduce), a few are accepting it and seeing the benefits: more resources per capita.

Vagobond: I love that you created a section about ‘Eastern Germany’ – today it’s very easy to forget that it was just twenty years ago that Germany was two different countries. There were a few moments in this section where I actually guffawed (Evil Santa and the smell chair in the disco era) – can you tell me your funniest moment in the former East Germany?

Francis Tapon:When I asked a East German if I could interview him, he agreed to give me 5 minutes and was not pleasant at first. However, in the end, he talked with me an hour, toured me around his city, took me into a church, and dropped me off at a train station in Poland! It’s funny how much he changed.

Vagobond: Turkey – I love it. It probably comes from going to the police and being offered a cup of tea and baklava even though I was in the wrong office – but anyway, I’m curious about your thoughts on the idea that Turkey is forming a sort of ‘New Ottoman Empire’ and the perception that the Turks are becoming more Islamicized? Also, what’s your favorite Turkish destination?

Francis Tapon:Turkey is just doing what most countries have been doing after WWII: extending its influence through economics and diplomacy rather than brute military and political expansion. If someone wants to call such policies the “New Ottoman Empire,” that’s fine, but don’t expect Turkey to militarily invade other countries–certainly not Europe. However, just like Latinos have been “invading” the USA, Turks will continue to “invade” Europe through immigration. European xenophobes will continue to resist the Turks, most of whom are not Islam fundamentalists. Most Turks are continuing down the path of secularism–a journey that started nearly 100 years ago. I’ve only seen western Turkey, but my favorite destination is Istanbul–it’s the third biggest city in the world.

Vagobond: I had an incredible experience in Pernik, Bulgaria where I got to get drunk with a retired communist coal miner who regaled me with stories of the glory of the communist days. You’ve traveled much more in Bulgaria than I have, do you think there is a danger of nostalgia moving Bulgaria backwards? Also, just curious – what, in your opinion is the best thing in Bulgaria?

Francis Tapon:Yes, there’s a danger that Bulgaria (and Eastern Europe) will move backwards. However, I don’t think that will happen. Change must happen to Bulgaria, but few Bulgarians think the solution is to go back to communism or heavy government control. The best thing about Bulgaria is how they shake their head from side-to-side to say “yes” and nod to mean “no.”

Vagobond: What about family? How can you travel for three years? Vagobond readers want to know things like where do you get the funds? Do you suffer from travel fatigue? Do you get lonely?

Francis Tapon: I worked for four years at Microsoft and Hitachi, lived like a monk, and saved up enough money to travel for years. I describe my travel secrets more in my article about how to travel for years. I don’t get fatigued because I take breaks whenever I get tired of traveling. For example, I parked it for 4 months in Tallinn, Estonia and several months in Slovenia and Croatia.

Vagobond: Finally….how about three solid travel tips that people may not have heard before.

Francis Tapon:

1. Always carry a tarp and a sleeping bag/pad. It weighs just 2 kg (4.4 pounds), and it liberates you from the pressure and worry of finding a hostel/hotel. It allows you to be spontaneous when you travel.

2. Consider discreet urban camping. Camp in a city park or in the city’s outskirts right at sunset and leave no trace by sunrise.

3. Always offer cash after you hitchhike. Most drivers won’t accept it, but it shows that you’re not a freeloader and that you appreciate their help. It’s better than a “thank you.” Also, when you’re a guest at someone’s house, shower them with gifts and generous actions. You’ll always be invited back.

Vagobond: Okay, one last question. If you disappear, what country should I come looking for you in so we can go drink a few bottles of wine together?

Francis Tapon:Montenegro. But here’s the catch: I’ve never drunk any alcohol in my life. So let’s get guzzle sparkling water instead. 🙂

Vagobond: Thanks Francis. Absolutely love the book – still have been jumping around with it, but it’s seriously awe-some.  Hope it sells millions of copies.

Francis Tapon:Thank you Vago!

You can purchase Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Lessons from Backpacking Across America and The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us at WanderLearn with Francis Tapon – where you can learn a lot more about this incredible modern Ibn Battuta.

Travelling in Turkey – More Greek and Roman Ruins than Italy and Greece!

Again, not a lot of time to write, but we are having a wonderful time in Turkey. From cruising the Bosporus to marveling at the Iskander Kebap in Bursa, this trip has been filed with adventures stretching across the Black Sea, the Marmara Sea, and soon the Aegean Sea, and of course a bit of the Mediterranean Sea too.

I’ll be writing about all of our adventures when I have some time to put things together and pick the best photos. In the meantime, here is a small piece I’ve put together on this amazing land we are trekking across by ferry, bus, taxi, and more.

turkey is surrounded by 4 seas
Turkey is surrounded by seas and littered with ancient civilizations.

As a guy who loves the ocean, I can hardly imagine a place that offers more variety than Turkey. While very different from places like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Hawaii; Turkey is filled with more Greek and Roman ruins than Greece and Italy and is surrounded by four seas and several straits.

The Black Sea which the Turkish people call Karadeniz borders the northern part of Turkey. It’s an inland sea that takes up more than 420,000 kilometers. Geologists say it was formed when Asia crashed into Europe and opened up the Bosporus Strait and flooded an inland plain. It is about 2200 feet deep in places and is warm in the summer and extremely cold during the winter. It is fed by many rivers and empties into the Bosporus. While no one seems to be certain why it is called the Black Sea some say it is because of the dangers that exist in it and others that it is because of the deep dark waters. It is the youngest sea on earth and is kept saline through inflows from the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosporus.

Sea of Marmara, Black Sea, Aegean Sea, Mediterreanean Sea
There\’s no shortage of beaches in Turkey

The Sea of Marmara which Turkish people call Denizi is a small inland sea connected to the Black Sea by the Bosphorus Strait. The Marmara Sea’s name comes from the Greek work for marble (marmar) and is about 11,000 square kilometers. It is relatively small being only 280 by 80 kilometers at its widest points. It is filled with many islands. To the south the Dardanelles Strait connects the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea.

Sea of Marmara, Black Sea, Aegean Sea, Mediterreanean Sea
There is plenty to do in the seas of Turkey.

Turkish people call it Ege Denizi, but in English it is known as the Aegean Sea. Legend says that it was named for a famous drowning but whether that was Queen Aegea of the Amazon or Aegeus, the father of Thesius isn’t totally clear. It’s waters however, are very clear and while it is only 214,000 square kilometers and often included as a part of the Mediterainean, it has over 3000 islands within it including Crete, Rhodes, Lesbos. It sits between Turkey and Greece. It’s shores were home to Trojans, Mycenaean, Persians, Minoans, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans, and many others. You can’t take a step without stepping on ancient stories and history.

Sea of Marmara, Black Sea, Aegean Sea, Mediterreanean Sea
It really is as gorgeous as you can imagine in Turkey

And finally, there is the mighty Mediterranean Sea. Bridging the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe and the many countries that exist on it’s shores. It fills the area between The straits of Gibraltar in the West which lead to the Atlantic Ocean and the Suez Canal in the East which connect it to the Red Sea. The Turkish name for the Med is Akdeniz which means White Sea. Mediterranean actually comes closer to meaning Middle Earth in Latin. That explains all the hobbits. Despite the Latin origins of the name, the Romans called it Mare Nostrum- Our Sea.
The Mediterranean is nearly 2.5 million square kilometers. Just about everyone you read about in ancient history class lived on its shores. Phoenicians, Egyptians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Lycians, Arabs, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans, and all those Europeans during the Renaissance. That’s because it has a massive 46,000 kilometer long coastline that is shared by Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Albania, Greece,Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Tunis, Algeria, and Morocco.

Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Museum

Nikola Tesla was perhaps the greatest wizard of the modern age. He invented radio at the same time as Marconi, invented alternating current which powers the world’s electric grid, and contributed to the fields of electrical engineering, physics, and power generation and transfer. His work touches the daily lives of most people on the planet.

Nikola Tesla MuseumTesla was born in Croatia, then a part of the Austrian Empire but his father was an Orthodox minister and since he was born in the former Yugoslavia and once visited Belgrade where he said “I am a Serb,” he is perhaps the proudest son of the Serbian people. He is on the 50 Serbian Dinar note and when you visit Belgrade it’s worth it to pay a visit to the Nikola Tesla Museum located in a 1929 residential villa built by Dragiša Brašovan, a distinguished Serbian architect.

The museum is open from 10 am to 6 pm Tuesday through Friday and weekends from 10 am to 1 pm. Entrance is 150 Serbian Dinars (about 1.5 Euro)

Belgrade Tesla MuseumThe story of how the museum which contains the bulk of Tesla’s personal effects and some of his inventions came to be is a result of Tesla dying and leaving his estate to his nephew, a resident of Belgrade. Tesla himself was a U.S. citizen and died in New York City where he was working on a way to create ‘free energy’ which conspiracy theorists believe was sabotaged by the electricity companies. Furthermore, they say that his inventions along this line were seized by the U.S. government and hidden in the deepest vaults for safekeeping. Because of his eccentric personality and his seemingly unbelievable and sometimes bizarre claims about possible scientific and technological developments, Tesla was ultimately ostracized and regarded as a mad scientist by many late in his life.

Conspiracies aside, Tesla was working on a way to transmit power without wires but when the project neared completion the backing was pulled by financier JP Morgan who notoriously said that if you couldn’t put a meter on it, you couldn’t make a profit from it.

Ashes of Tesla
Nikola Tesla’s Ashes

Despite his world changing inventions, Tesla died penniless and alone. As a result of all of this, the Belgrade Nikola Tesla museum is the only one in the world that contains his notes, letters, and personal belongings. These include more than 160,000 original documents, 2000+ books and journals, 1200+ historical technical exhibits, 1000+ technical drawings and schemata, 1500+ photographs and photo plates of original, technical objects, plus many of his instruments and apparatus.

The museum is a major draw for those who are deeply involved in environmental protection projects and studies of pollution-free energy sources. It is also the last resting place of Tesla as his ashes are kept in an urn at the back of the museum. Here is a short video I took with my phone of the Tesla coil…sorry for the bad cinematography 🙂

While the historical and personal effects of Tesla are interesting, the real fun is in the working models of his inventions including a small tesla coil, a poly-phase system, a core-less Tesla transformer, and his wireless remote control. The engineering students who volunteer at the museum give a wonderful demonstration and explanation (in English, Serbian, French, Italian, or Spanish) and if you want to feel what it is like to have thousands of volts of electricity pass through your body (safely) or to witness the power of Tesla’s inventions, there is no better place to do it. Knowing that his umbrella, hat, and the ashes of his body are in the same building makes it all just that much more exhilarating.

How Not To Enjoy World Travel – Part 2

world travel tipsThis is the second part in an ongoing series about how to have the worst time possible during your world travels. Here is the link to part 1.

http://www.vagobond.com/how-not-to-enjoy-world-travel-part-1/

4. Don’t Read
To me, reading is an essential part of travel. As far as I’m concerned, if you are one of those people who ‘doesn’t like to read’ than you are one of those people who should stay home and not travel.

Don’t read anything about the country of place you are going to. That way you won’t understand the culture, the traditions, the history, the climate, or anything else. You will be able to have a completely one dimensional experience. If you should read, for example, about how it is rude to point the bottoms of your feet at someone in Thailand, then you’ll miss out on the ass kicking that results when the kick-boxer tells you to stop pointing your feet at him and you continue to do it. You wouldn’t want to miss that.

Or if you read, you might feel compelled to go fifteen kilometers out of your way on the way between Seattle, Washingon and Vancouver, British Columbia and visit the remote and gorgeous Scenic Hot Springs. Wouldn’t that suck?

Don’t read on your trip. Don’t discover that Mark Twain stayed in the same hotel you are visiting in Honolulu (The Moana Surfrider) or that the lovely looking picnic spot in Cebu, Philippines is where Lapu Lapu ate a famous explorer. Who needs to know details like that?

Don’t read when you are stuck at the airport. It’s much better to just sit and get angry at the workers or eat overpriced food. Don’t read at the beach because it’s much better to sit there wondering what to do now that you are done swimming.

Yes, if you don’t want to enjoy world travel, it is essential that you not read.

world travel tips5) Don’t talk to anyone unless you have to

If you want to have horrible and meaningless travels, don’t talk to anyone unless you have to. Don’t talk to the man next to you on the airplane or bus, he might be a Chinese businessman who would invite you to visit his home and stay with his family.

Don’t talk to the guy who works at the hotel unless you need towels or directions. If he thinks “Hey, this is a nice person” he might actually tell you someplace that he doesn’t recommend to every other rude tourist. You might end up going to a tiny temple in Penang, Malaysia instead of going to the big one that has eighteen tourist buses outside it.

Don’t talk to people in the street. They might try to sell you something. They might want to practice English with you. They might want to share a bit of their culture or learn something about yours. Wow, wouldn’t it be a bummer if that Indonesian guy learned that the USA is not just like Bay Watch and Jerry Springer? Don’t talk to him.

If you want to NOT enjoy your travels, do not talk unless you need something.

world travel tips6) Don’t learn any of the local language

Finally, if you want to be absolutely certain that you don’t enjoy your world travel, pretend your a British Colonist and refuse to speak the local language.

Don’t say Tarima Kasih in Indonesia, don’t ask where to get the gonggongcheecha in China, don’t say Yvet in Turkey, don’t show the grocer in Barcelona you can understand the uno, dos, tres, don’t speak French in Paris (I found Parisians to be very gracious about my bad French), don’t say shukran in Morocco, kapcun kap in Thailand, daijobu in Japan, bollacks in England, dude in California, wienerschnitzel in Germany, or Mahalo in Hawaii.

Speaking the language encourages people to learn about you, to teach about their culture, to make friends, to have relationships, to even fall in love. There is nothing miserable about any of that. So if you want to Not enjoy the world of travel…don’t speak the local language.
Got more tips about how to NOT enjoy world travel, why not leave a comment below or send your tips to me using the contact form.

Cela Kula – Nis, Serbia’s Skull Tower

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsThe story of the Skull Tower in Nis, Serbia is a cautionary tale about power and rebellion. It is called Cela Kula in Serbian which means…”Skull Tower”.

The Serbs were far from happy being in the Ottoman Empire and they had began a rebellion in Nis which sits on the Constantinople Road running through Sofia, Bulgaria to modern day Istanbul. The 1809 rebellion was put down and the skulls of the rebels were used to build a tower as a reminder to anyone else who wanted to rise up against the Ottomans and Sultan Mahmud II.

Here is some of the history from Wikipidia:

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsOn May 31, 1809 on Cegar Hill a few kilometers northeast of Niš, Serbian insurrectionists suffered their greatest defeat in the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire (1804-1813). The insurrectionists’ advance towards Niš was stopped here and, when the far stronger Turkish forces attacked, the battle was ended by the Serbian commander Stevan Sineli, who sacrificially fired at his gunpowder depot in order to avoid surrendering to the Turks, killing himself, the rest of his men, and the advancing Turks.

After the retreat of the Serbian rebel army, the Turkish commander of Niš, Hursid Pasha, ordered that the heads of the killed Serbs were to be mounted on a tower to serve as a warning to whoever opposed the Ottoman Empire. In all, 952 skulls were included, with the skull of Sin?eli? placed at the top. The scalps from the skulls were stuffed with cotton and sent to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) as proof for Sultan Mahmud II.

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsThe tower stood in the open air until the liberation of Niš in 1878. By that time, much of the tower had deteriorated from weather conditions or from the removal of skulls for burial by relatives of killed rebels. In 1892, with donations gathered from all over Serbia, a chapel designed by the Belgrade architect Dimitrije T. Leko was built to enclose what was left of the tower. Today, only 58 skulls remain, including that of Sineli.

In front of the chapel stands the monument to Sineli, and a small relief depicting the battle, both from 1937. The monument commemorating the battle in the form of a guard tower was built in 1927 on Cegar Hill by Julian Djupon. The lower part is made out of stone from the Niš fortress.

Skull Tower was declared Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance in 1979, and it is protected by Republic of Serbia.

Like much of Serbia, I found the Skull Tower to be creepy and lacking any sort of contextual explanation – I had to search for that later. To get there I had to walk about two kilometers from the center of Nis. The ever present dog turds and tagging were constant while the sidewalks were not.

Along the way, I stopped to eat the Serbian delicacy Borek, basically a filo dough pastry stuffed with cheese or meat. It was a bit greasy, but overall pretty delicious. I bought a yogurt to wash it down while sitting in a grungy little park with some senior citizens who had no idea what to think of me joining them as they ate their boxed lunches.

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsAt the tower, there was no signage. I walked around it, took some pictures of the external chapel, but the doors were all locked so I couldn’t get inside. By this time, the borek and yogurt had caused my bowels to become a bit upset and I needed to find a toilet so despite my desire to see the tower of skulls, I went towards a dirty little bus station nearby to see if I could find a toilet. At the bus station, the lady asked me if I wanted to see the tower. I explained that I needed a toilet first, but yes, I wanted to see it.

A tiny little dwarf of a woman came out and led me to the very dirty bathroom (which I was very happy to have access to) and after I paid her the very reasonable entrance fee of 100 Serbian Dinar, she led me to the chapel where she pulled out her huge ring of keys and unlocked three locks to let me in. She watched curiously as I snapped some photos and tried to ‘feel’ the place. It felt like I expected, creepy.

When 19th century traveler Alphonse de Lemartine visited Nis in 1833, this was his experience.

“ My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it. ”

It made me think of something – which has caused more than a few people to claim I was being disrespectful, but which was, after all, what it made me think of. The Tower of Skulls is a powerful symbol of Serbian Independence – but since I’m a child of 1970s America – the entire time I was there, I was thinking of this….

Dramatic Vagobond Travel Video

Here’s a fun video I put together that hits some of the video I shot on my travels during 2009-2012 in Serbia, South Korea, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Turkey, Egypt, and a whole bunch of other places – I wasn’t real sure what to do with these so I proudly present to you – Vagobond Travel Dramatic. Please be sure to subscribe to my You Tube Channel. I’ve had several people ask me who the singer is that is just chilling out next to the Thames and grooving – I have no idea, but I enjoyed his impromptu show. He could be someone very famous for all I know…

Belgrade, Serbia – The Scars Remained but the Beauty Shined Through

Serbia in 2011 was still a very rough place to be. I’m glad I went, but it wasn’t easy. I look forward to returning to Belgrade someday. I felt as scarred as the city by the time I left – and that’s reflected in this decidedly unfair remembrance that I wrote soon after. 

Belgrade SerbiaBelgrade is more than a gritty city filled with bad graffiti and dog turds. I know it. and while I found pockets of what seemed like paradise, for the most part, the city felt like what it is, a scarred and damaged war zone where unspeakable atrocities have taken place. Despite having the reputation of being the Paris of Eastern Europe and having the best night life of just about anywhere in Europe, the Serbians I met generally said the nightlife wasn’t so great. While I didn’t visit the many museums of Belgrade, I still did get a sense that this is a cultured place with a highly educated population. I wanted to experience that, but somehow just missed it.

From the apartment I’d been staying in, I wandered to a hostel called 1001 Nights. The owner ran a clean place with a friendly vibe. I arrived at around 8 a.m. and he offered me coffee and rakia. I accepted. Nearby was a wonderful little cafe called JazzYoga which had great jazz playing and illustrated yoga postures on the walls. The food was carefully crafted healthy vegetarian fare. These two places told me that there is certainly more to Belgrade than graffiti, dog turds, and obnoxious fans of the former regime.

Belgrade SerbiaIn fact, as I walked around, I saw signs of cultured life just about everywhere I looked. In a city of approximately 1.7 million that has been influenced by Turks, Celts, Romans, and many others since it was founded in the 4th century there are signs of art and refinement everywhere you look…if you look past the dog turds and bad graffiti which were everywhere. One thing that was disturbing me but took me a while to figure out was the lack of diversity in Serbia. Serbs are almost 100% white. No blacks, no browns, no coffee colored, no shades other than white and often with blond hair and blue eyes. I usually live in incredibly diverse places and having no skin diversity was frankly pretty creepy. The fact that Belgrade is nicknamed “White City” and has a magazine named the same just made it creepier. Utah has more diversity.

In many ways it is like a nightmare with the stories of kidnappings, organ stealing, human slavery, bombed out buildings, ripped up streets, and utterly shitty grafitti on every possible surface. While for the most part, the Serbs I met were kind, intelligent, and gracious I had to wonder if the interior landscape is as scarred and fucked up as the exterior landscape.

Belgrade SerbiaI spent the day wandering through streets of the city. I strolled down the main pedestrian shopping area Knez Mihailova Street and then took a little side trip to the Bohemian cafe section. I snapped a few photos of the famous horse riding statue of Mihailo Obrenovic in Republic Square. I saw quite a few giant cathedrals and plenty of museums that I didn’t get the chance to visit because they were closed on Monday. The Temple of Saint Sava was impressive in its massiveness though only dating from about 1935 so not an ancient site by any means.

A highlight was a visit to the massive Kalemegdan Fortress which was once the cities main military fortification. These days it is the Serb version of Central Park. The park is filled with museums (closed on Mondays) and has wonderful views of the old fortifications, some interesting public art, and incredible viewpoints of the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.

Belgrade SerbiaHoused within the fortress is the Belgrade Zoo. I have to say, I’ve never seen so many bizarre animals in one place before. The highlight was this massive white tiger that sat in it’s cage looking about the size of a VW bug. I’ve never seen such an impressive animal. This is the king, never mind the lion.His name is Khane and he was awe inspiring. In some cases only a small fence separated me or other visitors from the many big cats, wolves, or dangerous ostriches of the zoo. I’m certain that people have lost limbs or body parts in this zoo which is housed in an ancient fortress. I spent the better part of four hours wandering around the zoo and getting up close and personal with the animals. Because it was freaking cold, there weren’t a lot of people there. Just me, the caretakers, and a handful of others. The animals from tropical areas were inside a winter barn which was heated for them, must be a long winter since the barn wasn’t all that big judging by the number of animals inside. Think Noah’s Ark. Oddly, there was a section of the zoo that seemed to be all domestic dogs put in zoo cages. I wonder if they were wild dogs caught amongst the dangerous packs in the city. The man at the hostel told me that people are killed by dogs on a regular basis in Belgrade. Seems like a big problem.

Belgrade SerbiaI enjoyed my day of wandering around in Belgrade though I have to admit that I’d been feeling a vague sense of unease since I had arrived in Serbia. It’s a little hard to describe, but suffice to say that I have felt the same thing in the United States, in particular after coming back to the USA from places like Canada. I kept looking over my shoulder. I wasn’t really looking for dogs, though that might have been part of it. It was more like I felt like I was being watched. I felt completely observed, just as in the United States. In the USA these days, if you look around you will find a camera, someone is watching you and chances are there is someone with a gun not too far from wherever you might be (FBI, CIA, DEA, Park Rangers, Forest Service, City Police, State Police, Highway Patrol, Homeland Security, Federal Marshals etc etc etc). Serbia feels the same way.

Later, when I returned to the hostel I asked the owner what the sign that was flashing outside my window was for. To my surprise, he told me it was for a laundry. Sex is used to advertise everything in Serbia it seems.

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Crveni Krst (Red Cross) Concentration Camp in Nis, Serbia

Red Cross Concentration Camp SerbiaTravel is about seeing things that broaden your experience. Both good and bad.  I’ve never had any desire to see a Nazi Concentration Camp as either a victim or a tourist, but back in 2011 I was in Nis, Serbia when I found out that there was a concentration camp nearby, I decided it was important to visit. I’m glad that I went. It was powerful and important.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

The camp was called the Red Cross Concentration Camp (Crveni Krst in Serbian) which sent a very mixed message. It was a strange contrast sort of like the interactions I had with most of the Serbians I met. I never really got the sense that they hated me, but in their rhetoric I sometimes heard a blind hatred of my country that included me and that, was most certainly not something that could be ignored.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

To get to the camp, I had to walk out of Nis and into the surrounding countryside. It was cold in either direction and the scenery was like a depressing Soviet era film all about life in the Gulag. Knowing I was heading to a concentration camp probably didn’t do anything to raise my level of happiness, still, I was curious what it would be like. As I got closer, I felt a cold wind not just blowing outside the walls of the camp but also blowing inside of me as I thought about the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

The camp was built by the Nazis during the occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II. Coming closer and seeing the swastica, barbed wire, and guard tower- I felt chills as I thought of the way human beings are able to kill each other. I’ve talked with killers before and they say it becomes easier each time and soon, it’s like just about anything else. Interestingly, butchers or hunters say the same thing. Incredibly disturbing.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

I walked in and was ignored by everyone there (about five people). I went to the ticket office, but no one was there so I walked around. It felt sort of surreal to be buying a ticket to a concentration camp anyway. I found some maintenance guys and a pretty Serbian girl eating some borek and I sort of shrugged my shoulders as in “Hey, am I suppossed to pay someone or something?” The girl came over and in halting English told me “Just go in, pay ticket later.”

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

So, I went in. Inside I found three American Missionaries from Missouri. A husband and wife who are missionaries in Macedonia and the wife’s father, a retired Army pastor. The lady who sold tickets was giving a tour and the American missionary woman was translating.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

It turns out that this particular concentration camp was the site of a story that was actually sort of uplifting. In 1942 an armed revolt led to the largest escape from any concentration camp. The escapees were mostly not Jewish but partisan fighters. Thinking back, my American education seems to have populated the camps with nothing but Jews like Anne Franke. By no means do I mean to say that this was not a triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity. These were partisan fighters. They were communist guerrillas from Josip Broz Tito’s movement who were captured by German forces during the Battle of Kozara. The escape was immortalized in a film by Miomir Stamenkovic called Lager Nis (another name for the camp) in 1987. It turns out that 100 out of 150 escaped, the other fifty were killed in the barbed wire by machine guns. On the upper floor a touching display of artwork by local schoolchildren had more than a few dead bodies in the wire along with mass graves and other horrors.

Of the 30,000 people who went through this camp, it’s estimated that 12,000 of them were executed at nearby Bubanj. Many of the others (especially those who were Jew or Gypsy) were sent to the other death camps and so probably perished as well. This camp was mostly filled with Serbian communists.On the top of three levels, were the solitary confinement cells. There were lists of who had occupied each particular cell and when. In some of the cells graffiti carved or scrawled by the prisoners is covered by plexiglass in order to preserve them for the future.

Red Cross Concentration Camp Serbia

On the floor of some of the cells barbed wire lay stretched out of frames. When I asked why it was there the ticket lady told us that prisoners were made to sleep on the barbed wire as a punishment. Apparently solitary by itself was not enough.

 

After wandering around in the cold, dark, damp building and trying to imagine what it had been like, I went outside and paid the ticket lady. The price was only 120 Serb Dinars (less than a dollar) and the proceeds go towards preserving the museum. As I left, I felt just one thing…an urge to get away.

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