I decided in the planning of this journey that I’d take a break every six to eight weeks. It’s how the last walk seemed to work, something would come up every couple of months, I’d stop for a short time, and I decided to maintain the pattern. Every week I take a day of rest but the tension in my body builds up and the week away from walking is the chance to really sleep, really relax.
I’ve done it three times so far, on the road – November in a hostel in Ukraine, Christmas in Bucharest with my brother and early March with friends in a house in Bulgaria. This was the first break that I spent completely alone, in an Airbnb apartment in a town that isn’t a tourist destination, more like a series of tower blocks collected near to a set of factories that release a diffuse yellow haze into the air. It didn’t matter, I was there to do nothing, and that’s what I did. Stretch, eat, write, read, watch TV. Conditioner for hair rather than washing it in hand soap, moisturiser, body lotion, foot cream. I washed my clothes in a machine rather than unsatisfactorily by hand. Replace the nutrients I’d been lacking, give myself a relief from the dried carbohydrates and preserved protein that I eat cold on the road. It worked, to a degree. I felt strangely unsatisfied at times, numbed by too much internet, but I relaxed, my body stopped hurting, I slept for most of the first two days, and I gave my feet an intense treatment of soaking and pumicing. I’d bought trainers in Sarajevo and it was time for the sandals to go home, which meant I no longer needed the extra skin I’d gathered there as protection against the abrasion and fresh air. I was loath to leave my little cocoon, as I always am when I stop walking. It all seems so impossible out there, to pack everything together, put it onto my back and set foot outside the shelter with absolutely no idea where I will sleep that night. The uncertainty of it, the discomfort, I just can’t imagine that I will enjoy it. It all becomes normal of course, as soon as I find my rhythm, set out to the edge of town, where pavements stop and trees grow close to the road, where tarmac gives way to packed stone and soon, sure enough, I’m in fields, turning aside to pee under fruit trees, assessing the route ahead for a place where the contours space out enough that I will find level ground and a good possibility for a camp.
I’ve been scared of the weather changing, the dampness of autumn means that I’m losing the light, I’m losing the heat and soon the night will come at 5pm and there will be ice in the darkness. But, again, as it happens I adapt to it with pleasure. There are misty mornings, where the valleys are full of swirling droplets, wet grass and spiderwebs coated with a thousand white beads and I climb up above it to see the layer of cloud thinning to blue sky and eventually look back to see the blanket of white below me, cupped in the hollows of the hilltops. Leaves rattle in the wind, scrape along the tracks and land in the troughs of the springs where water comes from the ground, sometimes in trickles, sometimes gushing. Springs that sometimes fall into hollowed out tree trunks and sometimes into ornamental stone that gives remembrance to a loved one. Springs where the travellers and the cows drink. Springs that you find in deep forest. Springs that are sometimes the only remnants of human settlement, until you look around and see the bones of houses, bricks tumbled and grassed over. The colours of the forest are changing, there is a brown tinge to the hills, there are yellow tips to the trees. People are out gathering rosehips, suddenly, all at once, as if the signal was broadcast that this is the week to walk out of the villages with plastic bags and rakes to pull the spiky branches down towards you. They are out for mushrooms too, just like in Ukraine a year ago. It’s the season of harvest, of preservation, of preparation for the hard times. I see corn drying, I see strings of onions hanging in eaves. The difference to Ukraine is that not all the fruits are picked; sometimes people can’t be bothered to harvest their apples, as in the UK, they leave apples and plums to fall and rot. In Ukraine everything was carefully collected; I would see people scuffing through the fallen leaves of street trees, searching for hidden walnuts. Nobody has offered me apples here, as they did so often a year ago.
Here they offer me cigarettes and rakia. Small cakes. Meals and beds. It all contains the same love and tenderness as Ukraine, just differently manifested. I struggled a little, coming back from the week off. I had a lot of hip pain the first few days, stabbing up into my lower back as I was walking and a deep unavoidable ache at night, no matter how often I switched position. It meant that when I was invited to sleep in someone’s house I said yes, even though it was only 3pm and I could have walked plenty further that day. They’d stopped to look at me as they locked the car in the garage, these two women in the elegance of draped and flowing clothing that characterises devout Muslim dress. I grinned as I walked towards them, my difference so obvious in my leggings and stumpy sweatiness. They invited me in and, for the second time in two days, I found myself having a conversation in excellent English with an intelligent young adult. Riad had been 19, a chance encounter outside a village shop who’d been happy to talk politics with me, and here now was Dženana, 21. I could ask all the questions that have been hampered by language so far – ask them about how they felt about the state of Bosnia, their hopes for change and follow the direction of their thoughts. Both talked about the lethargy, the hopelessness that is weighting down the people. Politics are fucked – is the general summary of how people feel here. There seems to be a layer of normal life that Bosnians operate at that functions below politics, which gives the illusion to the tourist that all is well but at heart, people are defeated, powerless. When I ask what the problems are, what should be done they gesture in the air, huff and say nothing. It’s beyond words. Beyond simple statements such as an ineffectual opposition leader or mismanagement of the health service or underfunding of public services in artificial austerity. The country is terminally, congenitally divided, and nothing beyond complete systemic overhaul can change that.
It feels like a deep conversation to get into, the pain of a badly performing country haunted by the constant spectre of its most recent war, and I ask if this is a normal conversation among friends. Yes, is the answer. When Bosnians get together, they’ll talk about it sooner or later.
I slept well that night, something restored within me by this family’s love and tenderness, a part of me nurtured that hadn’t been fulfilled by the week alone in Zenica. We hugged goodbyes and I left, walking through the misty village and out to the edges, heading for the forest that would take me over the hills to the next valley. I didn’t make it that far though. There was a huge black metal stove in a front garden with a fire at the base of it, wheels turning on the sides and a pipe leading to another container of water, also head height. I stopped and stared for so long that the men sitting in the garage beckoned me over. It was a huge still and they were there for the tradition of rakia production. Empty buckets of fermented plum mash stood by the stove and down at the other end, at the base of the water barrel, came a pipe which dripped spirits. I’d arrived at the beginning of the day, where only droplets were coming, while the contraption came to temperature. They sat me down at the table in the garage, buckets of rosehips and sacks of corn stacked around us, and poured me shots. It was good.
Rakia can be nothing but firewater, but in its best manifestations it’s sharp and smooth, starting a fire from the belly rather than the throat that spreads a pleasant warmth from the stomach outwards. These men were Croats, I had a feeling and confirmed it when we talked about my walking route, checking their knowledge of the Catholic pilgrimage across northern Spain.
I felt bad. Last night, through Dženana, I listened to her mother’s war story, about how the village was friends before 1992, how it didn’t matter who was Muslim and who was Croat. One night her best friend came to her, offered her money to leave the village but wouldn’t say why. The next day the firing started. Now she lives again with the people who shot at her but there’s an uneasy gap between them, relationships betrayed in favour of tribal affiliation. Sedina does an impression of waving uneasily to someone and not meaning the empty gesture; it’s a falsity, 24 years of saying hello to a neighbour who would have been happy to kill you back then and you both know it. Now I get to experience the dissonance of being invited into both houses, two sides of a village where people are good to strangers and closed to their neighbours.
I sat there tingling, three shots in, and when one of the guys invited me to see his sheep I thought sure, why not. It was 10.30am and well, there was no more walking that day. No more official walking anyway, we took his sheep from their enclosure up the hill and into an orchard, then walked further into the forest. The guy, Dalibor, who’d left the village at 17 and spent 30 years in Germany, returning home with a small pension, kept asking me if I had time to spare. I didn’t know what to say. I had infinite amounts of time, there is no deadline for me to be back in the UK and my time is my own, but I also had no time at all, if I wasn’t walking then I wasn’t making progress and if I didn’t make progress then I’d never get home. Dalibor preferred life here, he said, nobody stresses about time, people are so busy in Germany so focused on schedules and efficient logistics. I sensed the idea of something I’d been unable to see before, so deeply entrenched in my days measured by miles per hour. An economically inefficient system means time for spontaneous enjoyment. “Bosnian men would not take a job that did not allow them to sit in a cafe for two coffees a day” said Riad, of the Balkan cafe culture, “take that away and there would be riots.”, ironically referring to how people allow the current politics to continue.
He carried a pistol, this Dalibor, a Glock in a bag around his waist, and asked if I wanted to go and shoot it. We put a piece of wood and an empty beer can in a tree and took turns. I was terrible, hitting the can once but only when I was aiming for the wood. We drove back to his house and drank coffee, then there were more shots, then he cooked spaghetti. Somehow the day passed gently by until it was 4pm and there was no point in walking into the damp woods to find a place for my tent. Instead, I had a bath and settled for the night, my total mileage for the day a stunningly bad half a mile!
I am always pressuring myself with the need to make progress, to achieve what I call an adequate number of miles each day. It felt good that day, to let it go, to forget the need to break the moment and move on.
The rest of the week was more standard. I moved further into central Bosnia, spending one day climbing up from 500 to 1800m, starting in a misty valley where I’d camped next to a busy road, and ending in the winds of the wild high ground. I stopped at a mountain hut on the way up, a moderate distance from the road where people came for a Sunday excursion, two workers serving people coffee and mint tea while they chopped and laid out the food they’d brought with them. ‘Be careful of wolves’ they said, as usual, and I could tell they were bothered by me going alone. Up at the top that night though, I finally had some good information from a man who knew. I’d camped in the lee of another mountain hut, closed for sleeping in, and as darkness fell had been surprised by the arrival of a shepherd, come to open up the building and watch TV. Meho invited me in for a tea, which was welcome warmth after getting unsuspectingly chilled down by the winds of the final day’s miles and we talked about his work. It’s getting more difficult, he said, the market is changing and people don’t buy sheep milk cheese so much. His family has kept sheep on this mountain for 150 years, living up here for five months of every year, and he doesn’t know how long he can carry on. Meho’s ears pricked up and he opened the window to listen, eventually relaxing down into his seat again. I thought of the flock out there in the darkness, huddled behind wire, dogs pegged at the perimeter. “How often do wolves come?” I asked. “Only sometimes” “People tell me I shouldn’t walk alone, that I should be careful of wolves” “They just care about you. Wolves won’t attack a man” Finally, vindication from a shepherd. It’s so hard to hear well meant advice and try to work out how much a person actually knows of the danger they’re talking about. Just another balance of this journey – how much to be scared. How much to risk. How much to walk. How much to pause.
Another week ends. My hips still hurt but I’m stretching a lot and they’re slowly easing.