Guest columnist Aparna Veer writes…
I am an Indian and I have traveled to Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Romania and Bulgaria (Greece and Turkey too, if you consider them Balkan). I went to all these places solo, if that’s relevant.
I don’t know why the question is not simply ‘What is traveling in the Balkans like?’ instead of adding the ‘As an Indian’ part. But if the intention is to ask if I faced any racism or prejudice or some other peculiar treatment because of my nationality, then let me tell you that the answer is NO. And I look very Indian- brown skin, black hair, body language and all! That’s me:
I have had friends and colleagues from these countries and much of my curiosity stemmed from hearing them talk about their home countries and cultures. Since I am also a bit of a sounds and languages enthusiast, I wanted to check out the languages too. And the history.
But coming to the point. Traveling in the Balkans was to me a very soothing experience and the region reminds me of my home country India very much. The people, especially, are of the similar emotional make as ours back home.
I live in Germany, so these weren’t far off countries for me. But they do not come under the Schengen regime, so there is passport control everywhere. And those guys ask, almost always, what you are doing in that country. I always kept a straight face like them and told them my travel plans, till they almost smiled and let me pass with a “welcome!”. Most of these countries allow Schengen visa holders on their territories.
An important thing I would like to mention here is that, before I visited these places my friends and colleagues that I mentioned above, as well as others who had no clue (but an opinion), tried to scare me with things like “well, the capital is safe.. But I don’t know about the villages for tourists!”, “You might face some racism because they will think you are a Romani gypsy ..and I don’t want that to happen…We Serbians can be really stupid sometimes!”, “Sarajevo tends to be unstable sometimes, but if you just stick to the tourist areas and not go off the beaten track, it should all be fine I guess” and what not! I wonder what makes them have such an opinion about their own countries!
I met wonderful people everywhere. Nobody in either Romania or Serbia, or elsewhere thought I was a Romani gypsy. Nor was anybody unwelcoming or in any way, negative. The region is rich in natural beauty and on that count, I would say, it is no less than the western European nations. Yes, the tourism infrastructure isn’t as good as in western Europe and sometimes your cash cards won’t work on the ATMs or there won’t be many places that accept card payments etc. which means you have to carry cash – a lot. But that’s all fine, I think. It’s not the only region in the world with such limitations. The region isn’t very expensive and is rich in history and culture. The people are genuine and you won’t see any fake smiles and superficial niceness. They always help if you communicate your problem!
In Croatia, my host came to pick me up at the bus station. He also had a pizza waiting for me at the apartment I had booked and he was kind enough to drop me to the airport when my departure flight was on a public holiday!
In Serbia, all my cards suddenly stopped working (I had to speak to my banks!) and I wasn’t sure how I would ever pay my host! Hell, I wasn’t sure how I’d even reach the city from the airport as I didn’t have cash and my cards were not working. When a taxi guy came to ask if I’d like a taxi, I replied I don’t have money! He said, “don’t worry, what’s the problem exactly?”. I told him that my cards are working only on swipe machines in shops but nowhere else. Not even at ATMs. He said he could drive to a gas station and fill up fuel which I can pay with my card and he will give me the remaining money back in cash! I was so grateful and relieved, it reminded me of our very own Indian “jugaad technique” back home! But thanks to this guy, I wasn’t penniless on my first day in Serbia! My host there, gave me a little tour of Belgrade, just to show me around and give some local perspective!
Sarajevo is a city that surprised me the most with its very raw appeal and middle eastern feel. And I happened to meet many people with an India connection there! Somehow! My host had been to New Delhi for a wedding, so she knew our culture and had seen Taj Mahal etc. Air Serbia had forgotten to put my bag on the flight to Sarajevo, so my host had to take me to the town, so that I could buy something to sleep in.. And lo and behold, I got myself a Kurta and Pyjama from a shop that sold all stuff from India! The owner guy was a regular visitor to Delhi and Rajasthan! Roaming around further in the old town, I came across the most beautiful shop there, which sold traditional carpets and textiles from India and Iran. All the Pashmina and the Shahtoosh and other fancy stuff.. I felt warm with pride seeing the fact that I come from such a glorious country which makes such elegant stuff, fitting for royalty! That the old fashioned prosperity was still defined by “fancy and cultured stuff from India!”
Although I saw bullet ridden walls and buildings in many places, I would say that the region was perfectly fine and cool when I visited. Every country has a past. This region is paradise waiting to be discovered. They just need to market their tourist attractions!
I would, any day, go see again the castles of Transylvania, the Rila Monastry in Bulgaria, villages of Slovenia, Plitvice Lakes of Croatia, the old town of Sarajevo or simply the museums of Belgrade! It’s a whole new region that world needs to add on their ‘travel bucket list’!
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