I’ve decided not to write up about travel days, because they’ve all been pretty much the same so far. So instead, here’s the lowdown on what happens on bus journeys in the Balkans.
You can play it like a game of bingo if you like, and treat yourself to an ice cream if you get a full house.
- Arrive at the bus station. If you have a ticket already you’ll still need to pay at least 2 extra charges on top of your ticket (one for luggage, one which is a kind of bus station tax and sometimes one to have your online ticket exchanged for a different format). You will now have a lighter purse and at least 3 small, sweaty bits of paper, which you’ll inevitably lose.
- Pay between 20-50p to a chain-smoking, middle-aged lady (70% of the time she’ll be on her phone), who in exchange will give you a small scrap of toilet paper and let you use the bathroom. It’s usually a squat toilet and the first time I used one on this trip I forgot which way around you were supposed to squat. Whoops. (Bonus point if you drop your sunglasses in the toilet).
- Hop on the bus and play the seat belt lottery: will you be one of the lucky ones with a working lap belt?
- Listen to the driver’s radio playing loud turbofolk music (google it and listen to it for 30 seconds – any longer and your ears will bleed). He might also be on his phone, possibly chatting to the person sat in the front seat next to him, and almost always with a cigarette in hand. Who needs hands to steer when you have elbows?
- Swerve or stop on a roundabout for a street dog, who feels the need to run right through the middle of the road to chase after a plastic bag, floating in the wind.
- Go through border patrol, where a man with a gun will come and take everyone’s passport and return the whole stack to the driver. Wait anxiously until they’re all returned, fearing that yours will have been left behind in the border patrol hut.
- Stop in the middle of nowhere (which always has a bus stop and a bench despite there being no signs of civilisation for 30 miles around), to pick up one old guy who knows the driver, or drop off a letter sometimes just labelled with the recipient’s name.
- Go for a wee behind a ‘Welcome’ sign at the border and get shouted at in the local language by some guys in a car. Admittedly this has only happened once, but nature may well call again.
- Count the number of air fresheners. The bus driver will usually have at least 9 ‘magic trees’ hanging around the cab, yet the smell of sweat, mustiness and stale cigarette smoke still pervades.
- Emerge, blinking, into the light at a grey, 1970s bus station, bum soaked with sweat and your clothing now smelling of a blend of musty bus stench and cigarettes. You would promise yourself to take the train next time, but there are no trains.
I’d like to point out that the above is tongue-in-cheek. All these things can happen, but buses are also a cheap and reliable option in a region with an under-developed train network, and in all fairness most journeys thus far have beaten every UK megabus journey I’ve ever taken by a wide margin.