Justin Vela

Travels 2006-2009…the Pester Highlands….March 2008

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“This is the cleanest air you will breathe in all of Serbia,” says Samko.

Northwest of Novi Pazar, the Pester Highlands begin. This is the land that Nokic and Imamovic believe can bring prosperity to Sandzak. If the region is only discovered. We walk to where a clear stream of water trickles over boulders on a plain in the lower part of Pester. The air is fresh. Cities and pollution do not exist here. The plastic bags and pieces of paper littered by the few inhabitants seem inconsequential; they are whipped around by the fresh air like confetti thrown rudely, but harmlessly across the plain.

Samko is our guide.

This morning the enormous grey haired Bosniak took us to the outskirts of Novi Pazar to wash in the waters of the four hundred (400) year old Turkish bathhouse that he visits every morning.

I don’t have any shorts and was about to get in the water wearing my long underwear when Samko stops me. He pulls himself out of the bath, drops his shorts, and tells me to put them on, walking around bare-assed to find new shorts followed by the laughter of the bathing men.

The bathhouse is a male bonding event. The men come every morning to soak for several hours in the round pool of warm, slightly cloudy water and joke about whatever crosses their minds. Around the pool runs a trough that catches splashed water and that the men spit into. On either sides of the room there are smaller tubs for rinsing off from the pool and shaving. In the back of the room there are benches for scrubbing yourself with soap that is rinsed off with warm water poured from pitchers.

Bathing in another man’s shorts is one experience I never thought I would have. It happens here though, in a four hundred (400) year old Turkish bathhouse where the musty smell of the years is brought out from the walls by the thick steam.

Afterwards we pile into Samko’s jeep and ascend into Pester.

“Here there is the healthiest cows and best food in all the world. All of Serbia knows what cheese from Pester tastes like,” Samko says. We are driving along a plain, one set of hills from the highest point in Pester. The sparse buildings are one story homes with round shingled roofs. In a schoolyard children wrestle and play soccer and volleyball. Off in the distance, a women in a white headscarf rakes in her yard surrounded by the empty plain.

The area is untouched, Samko says. He insists it is the healthiest region in all of Serbia, one of the healthiest regions in all of Europe. But “because Pester is in Serbia nobody has heard of it.”

The hills begin again subtly. Samko evades the rocks and holes in the road and points out the areas where the sun is breaking through clouds and lighting up the plain. As we climb the passing trees get smaller. Samko talks about hunting.

“I could never kill a deer or even a rabbit. I prefer to walk around these mountains with two or three of my guns in case I run into a wolf or wild boar.” He points out the window.

“A wild boar escaped me there once,” he says.

Our adventure must have reminded Samko of himself at younger age. He had worked for banks in Switzerland and for Yugoslav companies building infrastructure in Iraq and tells wild stories of alcohol and women and the corrupt business dealings that he had outsmarted (or perhaps participated in). Scanning the road as he lumbers the jeep along, he says, simply, “We are climbing Mt. Yahroot.”

Across the mountain there are centuries old grave markers of Turkish soldiers. Many of the stone markers look like swords thrust into the Balkan soil. Samko puts the jeep into four wheel drive and makes a final nearly vertical climb to a massive antenna and points out across the highlands to set of black mountains in the distance. “That is Montenegro,” he says.

From the base of the antenna we can see not only the tops of mountains in Montenegro, but also the Golija Mountains near to Studenica and, through the clouds, a glimpse of Kopaonik, in central Serbia. The houses and school we just passed are tiny rooftops below.

Back in downtown Novi Pazar, an old flat bed truck is slowly making its way down the street. Municipality workers pick up the plant boxes and flower pots outside of restaurants and shops and put them onto the back of the truck and continue down the street. Pazar men dressed in leather jackets and knit sweaters watch the slow procession of the truck.
The only restaurants that municipality workers do not remove the plant boxes from are owned by Nusret.

Though we have seen him several times since our first night in Novi Pazar we had no idea he was so well connected. That the municipality workers are leaving his plant boxes means that while he is aligned with Zukorlic, he has also paid off the municipality. He stands in the entrance to one of his restaurants grimly watching the truck with the furrows in his forehead standing out, his jaw set and clenched tightly.

We go inside his restaurant for tea. Ugljanin is exercising some old style politics. It is technically illegal to have plant boxes on the sidewalks, but it is a law that the municipality generally overlooks. Now the collection of the plant boxes are being used to send a message that business owners must pay before election bribes to the municipality if they do not want additional problems.

As Nusret said on our first night in Novi Pazar, it is a “difficult moment for Sandzak.” Now he waves away our money when we try to pay for the tea. We leave him staring out the window as the municipality truck progresses up the street, looking like a man who knows he is about to have a heart attack, but can tell no one of it.

Read the previous chapter

Learn more about this book.

Read about my return to Sandzak in October 2010



Written by Justin Vela

March 26, 2011 at 6:51 pm

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