Welcome to the sixth and final installment of Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. For six weeks, Gadling bloggers have been telling their stories from around the globe. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few in a future post.
It had come down to this in Kosovo.
After much preparation, people to see, appointments to keep, a loose framework in hand for an onward journey through the world’s newest nation – and two days in I had barely left my hotel room.
There’s a reason why travel writers do not usually spend much time on sickness: As a subject, it isn’t interesting. It happens to all of us. Yet so far in Kosovo, it was everything I had, the prism through which I was seeing (or not seeing) the place for the first time. Besides, there was nothing uninteresting about it to me: It was all rather remarkable, the worst stomach virus of my life. I was leveled, weak, in pain. I needed help in a country that needed help.
The knock came mid-morning.
“You need hospital?” the woman said. She looked small in the wedge of hallway light after I cracked open the door. The evening before I had asked her colleague for the nearest one.
“A doctor. I need medicine.”
“There are doctors everywhere in this neighborhood!”
“OK, tell me where.”
“I show you. Let me call. What is hurting.”
I touched my stomach, and made a face that said all was not well.
“Oh,” she said. “I think you ate something.”
“Perhaps,” though I had not eaten since arriving.
“Lots of toilet?”
You could say that.
“Wait, please. We will fix you.”
Her name was Fatima. As she turned to go downstairs she said, “I come and get you. Wait please.”
Pec is a small city in western Kosovo, surrouned by steep green mountains that run to Montenegro a short distance away. I had arrived with the intention of making my way east, stopping for a spell in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, before turning north for the divided city of Mitrovice.
The month before I had received an e-mail from a British travel agency titled — rather optimistically, I thought at the time — “Things to see on your holiday in Kosovo.”
A Kosovo vacation? But then I thought, why not?
Sure, I wanted to take the measure of tourism in the world’s newest country, but I also wanted to verify what many had told me: Kosovo loved America and lionized George W. Bush.
That put this hunk of land not much bigger than Delaware in what seemed pre-Obama to be pretty small company, and, as it turned out, I was to both benefit from and be puzzled by this pro-Americanism.
“Bush,” an ethnic Albanian friend of mine in Montenegro told me, “is a hero in Kosovo.”
Not to the small Serb minority, of course. But it takes no time at all upon entering the country to see that only the ethnic Albanian majority, 90 percent of the population, count for much in Kosovo these days. On the drive in to Pec I passed the burned out husks of what were once grand homes. They now stood blackened or, worse, in rubble, having been stripped like you would an old car.
“Those are Serb homes,” said Miguel Gonzalez, a Spanish aid worker with whom I’d hitched a ride into the country. “The Albanian population drove them out.”
The homes clearly had once been nice. Why destroy them? Why not move into them?
“The Serbs still own them, and they can reclaim them from the town. They destroyed them so there would be nothing for them to come back to.”
Serbs are holding out in small enclaves around the country, most significantly in the northern half of Mitrovice, and Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, still refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence, seeing the country as the heartland of the Serb people.
That explained, partially at least, the fervent nationalism of the Albanian majority, which seemed a little too conspicuous, as if the population was trying to convince itself of something. The walls along buildings in Pec were often stained with graffiti that read, “No to compromise.”
The Albanian flag dominated the awnings, shop fronts and terraces of Pec, and Albanian folk music was on everywhere. When Kosovo’s parliament formerly declared independence from Serbia on February 17 this year, the streets of Pec filled with revelers who danced, blew their car horns and shot pistol rounds into the air as if what they had just been given amounted to deliverance.
Fatima spoke a little about that Sunday in February while, at her insistence, she walked me to a hospital a short distance from my hotel.
“It was a very important day for us,” she said.
“It must have been crazy here,” I said. “Like a big party.”
“Yes, like that. We were in the streets all night, singing. Everybody was there. It was very happy.”
Had things calmed down?
“Yes, it is now normal here, as you can see.”
What I saw on this walk would amount to my longest exposure to this small city. Up till now, I had been bed-bound save for a few weakened forays to nearby shops to find water.
My eyes grabbed at the surroundings: the narrow stores packed tightly beside one another; the full cafes; the benches where old men in old coats sat and talked; the minarets of mosques that peaked above rooftops; a busy boulevard lined with dead trees, which had been decapitated and looked like erect stalks of broccoli.
What I noticed most was the surprising number of elegant, trendy restaurants that lined the streets; invariably, above these restaurants was a derelict building: dark, stained in graffiti, windows blown out or boarded up, the cement cracked and flaking.
Such a juxtaposition spoke of selective improvement: What was renovated or repaired was what could make money. You could eat in darkness in your own apartment (as many did during frequent power cuts citywide) or you could stroll down to any number of smart pizzerias.
We passed shops that sold the American flag, large versions and smaller ones that fit car antennas. I noted the cars that passed festooned with them. I also noted the ubiquitous white Toyota Forerunners owned by the United Nations and other military vehicles.
“You are coming from?” Fatima asked.
“Ah, America. Very good!” She balled a fist. “My father lives in Chicago!”
She told me that her mother and father had emigrated to the U.S. in 1999, when Serbia was engaged in its particularly brutal effort to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its Albanian population. She had been to visit him twice.
“Does he come back?” I asked.
“Two times each year,” she said. “He is coming this week.”
But she couldn’t move to America, she said. It was too much work running the hotel on this one particular, nondescript side street in Pec.
Perhaps the oddest travel book I’ve ever read is A Journey Around My Room, by Xavier de Maistre, which is literally about just that (though with some metaphysical flights thrown in).
This in effect was what I did in Kosovo. Forced to tread a steady path between bed and bathroom, I looked for different ways to glean something, anything, of the country from this limited space.
I kept my windows open despite the cold to catch the calls to prayer, which provided five neat spots of time daily and spoke of the Islamic reality of the place. I noted the din of power generators, a constant low hum, which suggested those frequent power cuts. I turned on the television and flipped through channels featuring fat women doing Albanian folk dances and singing. Even that yielded some insights: the music seemed like a fusion of different traditions – Greek, Turkish – that showed how culturally set apart this place was from elsewhere in the Balkans. Some of the bloodiest episodes of the past 15 years played out in Kosovo, due in no small part to the fact that the local ethnic population felt it belonged if not someplace else than at least to itself rather than Serbia.
Writing this now, I see how the literal and metaphorical meaning of the term “travel bug” took up bedside positions as I lay in the hospital watching the I.V. deliver its budget of hydration in a slow drip.
Literally, the doctor diagnosed me with a stomach flu and dehydration so severe I needed two I.V. bags and nearly three hours to restore enough electrolytes and the like to get to my feet again.
But laying there I thought about wanderlust – that other travel bug – which is essentially the drive in some of us to be in this very situation; not sick, but in a foreign place, a stranger relying on strangers, trying to figure out Where the hell am I?
The hospital was an unannounced building, stark white on the inside, a few tired people waiting in seats for somebody to see them. Fatima guided me past them and found a woman doctor named Elira, middle aged with red hair and wearing the typical white coat. Fatima told her I was American.
There was a young woman in the bed next to me, also receiving a drip, writhing in what appeared to be terrible pain. She moaned often.
Fatima told me she would return to pick me up.
I lay there staring at the ceiling and thought about the conclusions I could draw from my limited observations up till this point, and couldn’t really come up with any hard ones. How could I? If there’s anything about sickness worth mentioning for a traveler, it is its ability to blur a place.
I even found it hard to reckon with the kindness Fatima and the hospital staff had showed me on this day, all this talk of me being American (Elira too had approved. “We love America! America good to Kosovo!”).
Sometimes the kindness a traveler encounters is just random and pure, and sometimes it hints at reciprocal expectation. Fatima’s seemed more like the former, but also driven by a kind of gratitude. That weighed the experience down because you wanted to say in such cases, For what?
Was it because US-led NATO had bombed to a halt Serbia’s campaign against ethnic Albanians back in 1999? Was it because the US had endorsed Kosovo’s independence in February?
I didn’t like feeling that this hospitality was some kind of payback rather than something that stood on its own. And I didn’t like the idea of this kindness and welcome set against some of the things I had managed to see in this short time, especially those destroyed Serb houses.
They destroyed them so there would be nothing for them to come back to.
I didn’t manage to clear any of this up in my head by the time Fatima returned to walk me back to the hotel. My Kosovo vacation would end abruptly. I returned to Montenegro the next day to convalesce. Answers would wait till a return trip a few months later.
At the hospital, as I put my shoes back on (they’d made me remove them for some reason) I caught a glimpse of Fatima slipping a €20 note to the doctor. There was no bill waiting for me.
As we walked back to the hotel, past a school yard full of playing children, I wanted to ask Fatima what she had paid for, but I decided not to.