The Kindness of Strangers

My eyes stung from the salty sweat trickling down my forehead. The heat was intense. The shade from the ancient-looking apple tree under which i’d taken cover didn’t do much to cool me. I considered swatting away the ants crawling at my leg but it was simply too much effort. My leg muscles screamed in pain as if i’d run the past twenty plus kilometres instead of walking them. But the view. The view was simply stunning. At the far side of the road the land dropped steeply to a large patch of woodland and over the tree tops I could see for miles. Dotted across the landscape were small villages containing water. Not only water, but other things; enticing things. Sugary, ice cold cola with beads of sweat running down the outside of the can or fruity, sticky and sweet ice lollies that would taste like heaven right now. Past those villages I could see larger towns and cities in which people would be sat sipping chilled beers in air conditioned bars. But that was there and I was here, perched atop of this hill with a bloody mosquito buzzing around me.

I’d set off several hours earlier from my little camping spot full of hope and excitement. With no food and only the smallest amount of water, I was certain that I would be able to find a small shop within an hour. After all, I was on a road. The same road i’d been walking along for five days. The stubble on my chin hadn’t been there when I clambered off the ageing bus in Prijepolje, the most southerly town in western Serbia. Five days ago i’d been excited to start the walk. Right now I wasn’t. I’d walked for an hour and was shocked to have not found a shop in either of the small villages i’d passed through. Nor was there anyone around that I could ask for water from. I trundled on. Five hours of walking later and I began to get worried. With the sun almost at it’s highest I found a small tree to take cover underneath. Which is where I sat now — with ants crawling on me. It was July and here I was in the south of Serbia with the temperature soaring into the 40’s, no offers of help from passers by all day, no water and mild case of sunburn.

I let out a huge sigh, as if the exhale of air would in some way help. It didn’t. I decided I needed to keep on walking. Surely it was better to suffer on through than sit on my backside. Clambering to my feet I hauled my ridiculously heavy pack onto my aching back. I popped in my headphones, adjusted my cap and forced my stiff legs to walk.

I hadn’t walked more than 10 minutes until, as I rounded a bend in the road I spotted a small plume of smoke snaking it’s way up from behind a wall of trees. SMOKE! I took my headphones out and listened to the sound of crackling wood. Experience had taught me that it would be either a farmer burning rubbish or it would be some sort of BBQ or family gathering. I was hoping it would be the latter. I picked up my pace spurred on by my over excited imagination that was picturing turning the corner and seeing a party in full swing; more than a party in fact, a traditional Serbian party with a whole pig being rotated slowly over an open fire, ice cold beers everywhere, a table full of home cooked breads, cured meats and soft, juicy fruit picked straight from the tree at a neighbours house.

I rounded the corner and it wasn’t a huge party. But there was a man, and I assume his wife and daughter, sat eating food outside of their rustic cottage. To the right of the house was a vegetable patch that was overflowing with ripe tomatoes and the like. Apple and Quince trees sagged under the sheer weight of the fruit hanging from it’s branches. To the right of the house was a small pen with a couple of pigs basking in a mud bath, looking rather content. Chickens pecked and scratched at the grass and dirt around the garden. Behind one rather hen-pecked looking hen was a water tap. I could have cried with happiness.

The family hadn’t yet noticed me but they soon would. Not giving much thought to whether I was being rude or not I opened the small rickety garden gate and almost ran in.

“Erm…Zdravo!” I croaked, the words sticking to my dry throat on their way out. The man turned around startled. He threw a hand up in greeting, but he had confusion (or was it suspicion) written over his face.

“Sorry, but can I use your water please?” I had forgotten my very limited Serbian in desperation. Clearly he didn’t understand so I just pointed at the tap and made the international sign for ‘drinking’.

“Da!” He nodded with a gesture towards the tap.

The family sat and watched as I dropped my pack onto the ground, almost ran over to the tap and leapt with joy as the first drops of ice cold water trickled out. Instead of filling the bottle I just scooped the precious liquid to my dry lips with a cupped hand feeling relief as the water ran down my throat. Cupped hand after cupped hand was drank before I stuck my head underneath, the cool water flowing down my back and over my face. I laughed and splashed as if I hadn’t had water for a few days, let alone a few hours. I must have looked insane.

Refreshed, cooled and quenched I turned the tap off and ran back to my pack to grab my drinks bottles, only then, noticing the perplexed look etched on the families face. I stopped awkwardly and began to wonder how I would explain the predicament I was in. I began to try and immediately the man stood up, took his chair and placed it in the shade of a huge Plum tree. Gesturing for me to sit, I walked over and lowered myself into the seat. I started to apologise, using a combination of hand signals and broken Serbian, for disturbing their meal in a rather rude manner, the man reached out and rested his hand on my shoulder.

“Ne…umm….It is OK” A warm smile stretched across his face. He held his hand out to introduce himself. “Zovem se Dragan” “My name is Kevin’

He shouted over to his wife who had hurried off into the kitchen of their cottage and was now returning with a plate. She ran back inside while Dragan wandered over to my pack, pulled out my two water bottles from their holders and filled them for me.

The wife shot out of the door with a tray on which sat a plate piled with meat and a traditional Serbian Salad and two beers. Placing it in front of me, she gestured for me to start eating. I thanked her profusely as I wolfed down the food. The man reached over, took an ice cold beer, opened it and placed it in my hand. We clinked bottles and drank. Alcohol isn’t the best thing to drink when dehydrated, admittedly, but it was so damn refreshing!

I started once more to explain why I had barged through their gate and what I was doing in Serbia and the man raised his hands and shook his head. He clearly didn’t want to know the reason, or, more to the point, he didn’t need to know. He simply saw someone who needed assistance, helped and that was that. I sank into my chair, nursed the last of my beer and watched a chicken rummaging in some a corn husks nearby.

Feeling refreshed and a little full from a huge meal it was time to get walking once more. Standing up, I shook my hosts hands thanking them profusely for their kindness and hospitality. Dragan once again shrugged at my gratitude as if to say, ‘it’s not a problem’. Grabbing my pack off the floor I threw it onto my back. I reached into my pocket and took out some money — a couple of Euros worth — to try and pay for the cost of my food as I always do in those situations, and the family backed off, almost insulted. I should have known from the amount of times i’ve been shown this sort of kindness by total strangers.

Closing the gate behind me I looked back at the family who started to wave. Holding my hand over my heart I offered them my most sincere thanks for their kindness.

“Srećan Put” the daughter yelled as I rounded the corner.

A short while later, I took a break in a bus shelter at the side of the road. I reached into the pouch that sat on my chest to grab my camera to take a photo of the landscape and nestled in the top I found a small tin foil package. Confused, I opened the package to see what was inside. It was a parcel of bread and meat; the family had clearly snuck it into my pack when I wasn’t looking.

This is a sample chapter from ‘Walk Serbia: On Foot To Discover The Heart Of A Nation’

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