Justin Vela

Travels 2006-2009…the Pester Highlands II…inat…March 2008

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“It’s kind of like everything we are in Serbia,” Igor says. “It means pride and spite. Resilience and bravery. It’s all those things rolled into one word. Inat.”

An old trabant jeep putters around the corner. The driver hops the curb and parks in the mud outside the post office.

“Why did that guy do that?” Igor says. “Why didn’t he just park somewhere else and walk a little further to the post office? Inat. That’s why. So it’s also kinda about being stupid. About doing things just because. Its something we Serbs have a lot of. I have it. That guy really has it. Inat explains a lot.”

We have motorcycled from Novi Pazar to Sjenica, a small town high in the Pester Highlands. Here each house operates as a small factory, each family producing much of the food and other products that they consume, self-sustaining. The population of Sjenica is 13,000, but except for a few school children the streets are nearly empty during the day.

At night groups of teenagers walk back and forth along the main street. There is virtually nothing else for them to do. On Friday and some Saturday nights, the one club in town has live music. When the club closes, the flood of people onto the street almost makes Sjenica seem inhabited.

In the mornings the people are gone, working inside their houses or in the fields, replaced on the street by mangy dogs that wander around the roads with their ribs showing.

The residents of Sjenica are some of the poorest people in Serbia. For Igor, the town’s poverty is too similar to what he has seen traveling in Africa and Asia. He goes up to the dogs and tries to pet them. “Desi, desi, desi,” he croons. What’s up? He tries to show some love to the dogs and then launches into tirades against the politicians who have forgotten Sjenica.

While the poverty is not abject, the semblance of order somehow makes Sjenica’s situation all the worse.

During the winters the town is completely snowed into the mountains. December through February it is only possible to leave Sjenica on horseback. The roads are poor and the town has no machines to clear them. Even when not snowed in Sjenica is the only town in Serbia without an official bus service to Belgrade. A few entrepreneurs have bought busses and started an unofficial transpiration line. They set the prices themselves, often overcharging their customers.

Igor and I pass a group of men and boys tearing pieces of metal from an abandoned truck on the outskirts of town. They wear ragged jackets against the cold and are dirty from the work. Next to them someone has set a pile of trash on fire for warmth. With so few people in town, the residents of Sjenica are very busy. Busy with simply surviving. With the making of their food and storing it and making clothes and blankets and repairing their homes. Entire lives consumed simply with self-sustaining.

Igor does not think that people inside Serbia, which he believes to be a European country, should be working such menial tasks simply to self-sustain.

When he sees that part of the main road through Sjenica is being repaved, he sneers.

“They’ll work until election day and then stop when the street is halfway done. The politicians are reminding people they occasionally do something so they to vote.”

As dismal as Sjenica’ economic situation is, the town is set against the backdrop of Pester.

“There is a colossal need for investment and infrastructure,” a farmer named Gazi Ibro says. “We know the potential for this region, not only for food, but also for tourism. We could live off our natural resources. The potential is not nearly explored.”

Ibro has fourteen cows. He cannot afford more. He and his extended family sit in their living room and talk about loans and investment. These are the discussions of farmers all over the world, but Sjenica is different, Ibro says. The Pester Highlands are undiscovered. They are clean. The farms have been in the same families for generations and the farming methods have barely changed. The people’s vision is to produce high quality food for consumption across Europe. The kind of food that is of a higher quality and sold in smaller amounts. Amounts the family farms in Sjenica can produce.

It is true that the food produced in Sjenica is unique. There is a clarity to the food; the health and cleanness of Pester can actually be tasted. At lunch everything on the table is produced on the farm except for the salt and toothpicks.

“But I am a carpenter and those toothpicks would have been easy to make,” Ibro says.

His sons show us the farm. In one of the barns four cows are lying pregnant in piles of hay. 1962 is carved into the stone wall of the barn.

“That’s when this barn was built,” says one of Ibro’s sons. Around the barn are hay stacks and small single room buildings made from wood. Inside one of these buildings there are trays of enormous cheese slabs wrapped in gauze and buckets of milk and yogurt. The best cheese is put in a wooden container that gives it an added flavor.

In the other buildings, there are slabs of bacon and bowels of kymek. Plastic buckets, trays, wood boxes and bowels fill the buildings. The family also produces its own rakija, which is kept in large wooden barrels. Ibro’s sons laugh and twirl pieces of wool into thread. “We keep both black and white sheep in order to have different color socks,” they say.

One family member has come up with the money to buy the machinery to produce milk products in mass. But she needs more money to buy additional cows and a truck to transport and market the products. The machinery can be used to produce milk, cream, and cheese and the woman wants to sell the products directly to delicatessens in Belgrade.

But the drums and mixers sit unused, the woman saving money for the next step.

Outside the building that houses the unused machinery, four children sit in the dirt and use rocks to pretend to cook lunch.

They are absorbed and ignore us as we walk past them onto the plain behind the farm and come to a river. During the summer the Ibros use sandbags to dam the river and make a waterhole for swimming. Sparingly, spread out on the surrounding hills there are a few other houses.

They look very far, even far from Sjenica, and are very alone.

Read the previous chapter

Learn more about this book.



Written by Justin Vela

April 3, 2011 at 7:51 pm

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