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A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Rooms By the Hour In Belgrade And An Insane Taxi Driver from Novi Sad
When I worked at the American Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia in the early aughts, my wife and I took advantage of every long weekend to travel around the region. But Skopje isn't much of a flight hub, so it's tricky to see much in a three-day weekend, and flight schedules are inconvenient at best.
Very early one Saturday morning we caught a 6 A.M. flight to Belgrade, on JAT, the old Yugoslav National Airline that, at least at that time, still inexplicably allowed passengers to put large suitcases in empty seats around the cabin. On the way to Belgrade we decided on a whim to spend just one day in the city and then take an overnight train to Budapest.
After a delightful day of exploring Belgrade, we were exhausted, after having gotten up at 4 A.M. for our flight, but we had six hours to kill until our train left at midnight. We came across the Hotel Beograd a place near enough to the station to be convenient, and shabby looking enough to have hourly rates.
There is never a graceful way to enquire about hourly rates at a hotel, particularly when you arrive with a member of the opposite sex and are encircled by numerous loitering and inquisitive men. The desk clerk, a middle aged man with thick glasses who wore an unfriendly scowl, wanted about $12, but would only let us stay in the room until 20.00. In my rudimentary Serbian/Macedonian I told him that I might need a bit longer, say, until 22.00 or 23.00. He scoffed at the request and the loitering men began to laugh and chatter about us.
Why does he need so much time with her, is what they were probably saying.
We haggled a bit and he eventually agreed to let us stay in our room until 21.00, enough time for us to take a nap, in theory. The clerk asked for our passports and it suddenly dawned on me that I had left my regular tourist passport in Skopje and had only a black diplomatic passport. After our public negotiation over the day rate at this shabby hotel, I was certain that pulling out this passport would cause a stir and sure enough it did, as the men began to howl.
Can you believe the American! He's a diplomat and he comes here with a woman, doesn't want to pay for the room for a whole night and then tries to haggle!
Even though our objectives were pure, I felt dirty in our sweaty, cramped and noisy room at the Beograd. My wife was certain that she saw some bloodstains on her twin bed, but mine had nothing worse than a few hairs and some holes in the sheets. The room was so hot, we had to keep the window open, and the traffic outside kept me awake. The lock on the door didn't work so we barricaded a chair up against the door and I paced around the suffocating, dismal room until check out time, feeling oddly like Robert De Niro in his threadbare apartment in the movie Taxi Driver.
After a day and a half enjoying all of the cultural delights of Budapest, including foot-long meatball subs at Subway, and other treats unavailable in Skopje, it was time to figure out how to get back to Belgrade in time for our 21.00 flight. I assumed we'd have no problem, but both the bus and the train left at 14.00, with the bus arriving in Belgrade after our flight and the train arriving just an hour before departure. We looked into renting a car, but no Hungarian rental car company would allow us to drop off in Serbia.
We decided to take the train and then race into a taxi to the airport and hope for the best. But as we approached Novi Sad, a fellow passenger advised us that we should get out in Novi Sad, and then take a taxi directly to the Belgrade airport to catch our flight. He called a taxi company, we agreed to pay 50€ and a man bearing a sign with our names was there at the train station waiting to pick us up. Perfect! Right?
Our new friend on the train told us that Novi Sad and Belgrade were connected by a four lane highway and advised us that a taxi could get us to the airport in an hour, while the train took 90 minutes just to get to downtown Belgrade. The main introduced himself as Novica, and handed us his business card, which showed him all dressed up in a royal blue suit befitting a rap star attending a baptism posing in front of two Mercedes Benzes. (see photo)
As we approached his car, he pointed to a white Benz that was perhaps 8-10 years old but very nicely polished.
"Mercedez Benz," he said proudly pointing to the car. "You know it?"
We slowly made our way in and then out of Novi Sad as Novica narrated his Serbian and very rudimentary English. From what I understood, Novi Sad was a great city and we were making a huge mistake by not stopping and spending time in the town. I assured him that we would be back another time, while reminding him that we were in a hurry and had a flight to catch.
About twenty minutes into the ride, my wife and I began to mutter concerns to each other. "Ask him why we aren't getting on the highway," Jen instructed me. I tried asking him, but he just kept telling us not to worry and that he knew what he was doing.
We were on a busy, two-lane country road that began to ascend up a mountain. Eventually we saw a sign indicating that we had entered some kind of national park. As our concerns grew, Novica began to banter about the park, and what a great tourist destination it is. I started to look up some words in a Serbian phrasebook and managed to say: "SEGA, NE TOURIST! AVION AERODROM, SEGA!" Which means, "Now, no tourist, flight, airplane, now!"
Novica seemed stung by my scolding. He had taken us on a massive detour in the mistaken belief that we had wanted to take a scenic route to the Belgrade airport.
After another half hour on a sickeningly twisty country road, we eventually came to the entrance to the highway, which pleased us immensely. Right after going through the toll area and getting our ticket, though, Novica inexplicably pulled over and began rummaging around for something in his trunk. I looked at the gas gauge and noticed that he was almost out of gas.
A minute later Novica emerged, smiling and brandishing a few photo albums. The first album was filled with pictures of him in various poses in front of his two taxis. In each photo he was pimped out with his dark glasses along with his royal blue, three-piece suit or a white vest along with white dress shirt and white dress pants. We had to laugh.
The second photo album contained photos from various weddings he had been the driver for. And the final one contained photos of him at various radical Serb political demonstrations. He appeared waving placards denouncing sending Serb war criminals to The Hague. In the photos you could see bunches of scary looking Chetniks with mean faces and long straggly beards. So this is why he is taking us on a scenic route, I thought. It was less then three years after NATO forces bombed Belgrade and this was his revenge.
I asked Novica what all the political photos were about and he seemed a bit embarrassed, saying that these days all he cared about was business, not politics.
Most of the cars on the highway seemed to be zooming past us; the speed limit was 70, but Novica was only going 50. We had no idea how far we were from the Belgrade airport and it was just about an hour before flight time. After a detour to get gas, Jen finally lost her patience and loudly chided him to go faster, while tapping her watch insistently. Probably only a minute later, the airport actually came into sight.
We could hardly believe it, and Novica made a point of telling us that he had told us so all along. Of course the post script to this tale writes itself: we were there 40 minutes before our scheduled departure, but the flight took off two hours late anyways, so we could have stayed on the train and saved ourselves the 50€. But then we wouldn't have met Novica from Novi Sad.
Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.