En Route: Belgrade

Dispatch No. 3 from Alexander Martin’s bold Trans-Europa Canoe Expedition

Alexander Martin, 25, completed the first modern-day canoe expedition across America last year — a 4,300-mile solo journey from Portland to Portland (Oregon to Maine). This fall, Martin has been reporting from the field on his latest continent crossing—a two-man, 4,000-km journey across Europe with expedition partner John van der Stricht, “following the waterways of history  … west to east from the Atlantic Coast of France at Nantes, up the Loire River, through French canals to the Rhine River, over the mountains of the Black Forest to the source of the Danube River, and down the Danube to the Black Sea.”

Martin sent in this correspondence from Belgrade, on the Danube River in central Serbia, at Kilometer 2,800. Stay tuned to Canoekayak.com, where Martin will be recounting the epic journey in a series of exclusive En Route dispatches. CLICK HERE to see No. 1, and HERE to see No. 2.

We’ve had an interesting time in Serbia so far. Attached are a few of the best photos from the last three weeks. I haven’t had a ton of time, and internet is getting much sparser in the Balkans. We have a government order saying that we have one week to reach the Romanian border before we are illegal, so in a bit of a rush. If you know of anyone that would like to buy an Eqsuif Prospecteur in Romania, let me know!

“We’re on a Road to Nowhere … ”

The Talking Heads song had been on our lips since it seeped in during a game of backgammon in a Belgrade cafe the night before. One or the other of us sang softly as the police led us into the Serbian courtroom.

Our fate, as it were, would be decided here.

***

John and I were in high spirits paddling into the capital of Serbia. We had just made a solid 500-kilometer run from Budapest (shown in the first picture above) in seven days, and were excited for a powerful dollar, a beautiful city, and a new chapter in our crossing of Europe.

Paddling into a foreign city of two or three million people can be intimidating. Our habit has been to leave our canoe at a canoe club or marina and then walk or ride into the city itself. We rode the oldest subway in the world into Vienna, the river-mud fresh on our boots and 60-liter barrels held awkwardly amidst the press of the afternoon commute–this had been normal for us.

In Belgrade, we had been on the dock for less than five minutes before eager teenagers were carrying our boat into a riverside bunker stocked with paddling equipment, while their paddling coach Boris insisted that he give us a ride into the city immediately. “You come with boat. Very special, good. We help you.”

In the United States, most urban centers are swaddled in endless suburbs and commuter towns. Here, the farmland and wild shore seems to end within sight of downtown. In most cities we have passed through, there are multiple rowing clubs and canoe clubs on the river and close to downtown. Some of them almost remind you of a yacht clubs–with gyms, restaurants, accommodations, and endless boat racks populated by every paddlecraft
imaginable.

When I crossed North America by canoe, I saw two other paddlers in six months. In Europe, in a third of the time, I’ve seen hundreds. There have been old men out in any weather, young girls practicing on slalom courses under the walls of ancient castles, teenagers in sleek K-1s being barked at in Slovak from a clanging chase boat. This is a land of small boats, of a love and dedication to canoes and kayaks that leaves our homeland far behind.

We raced through rush hour traffic as Boris, the President of Serbian Rafting Federation, laughed at our apology for the smell of our trip clothes.

***

When we left Hungary, the officers at the river border checkpoint told us we were OK to pass into Serbia. A wide language barrier separated us. Hungary was settled a thousand years ago by the Magyars, a Central Asian people who speak a language as different from English as Turkish or Hindi. We filled out a half-dozen forms fitted out in a half-dozen languages, all with roughly the same questions:

“Do you have any stowaways on board?”
“Do any of the stowaways have tuberculosis?”
“What is your cargo?”
“Master’s Name:”
“Ship name and national registration number”

We paddled into Serbia thinking we had crossed all of our Ts.

***

Dozens of uniforms and landmine markers kept us mostly out of Croatia, and so, after nearly a week in Serbia we had paddled into Belgrade, the oldest city in Europe and a phoenix that has been bombed, destroyed, and occupied so many times that it seems the generous and hospitable people that make it up have not known peace for more than a generation.

Amidst apologies and furrowed brows, we were turned in as illegals almost immediately upon arrival at our hostel.

***

The station chief entered at one point during our questioning–the officers in the room jumped to their feet. He looked us all up and down, but before any action could be undertaken, his phone rang–a 50-year-old man’s phone, a man used to being obeyed. It rang, “What is love? Baby don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me … no more.” He let us all listen to it ring, in all its A Night at the Roxbury-glory, then stepped out, no smile above his starched collar, to let the inspectors continue with us.

***

The day before we had paddled between the battered bridge pilings in Novi Sad. NATO airstrikes had dropped the bridge into the river in 1999 in an effort to force Slobodan Milosevic to pull the Yugoslav army out of Kosovo. Targets were hit all over the country, and public opinion eventually forced Milosevic to agree to a cease fire, and then a year later to leave the government. We paddled between the pylons in silence, looking
at the shattered Ferrocrete and thinking about the borders we had crossed so far and the increasingly arbitrary nature of the divisions. The more people we spoke with and the more signs of conflict we saw, the more it dawned on us that there are no easy answers or explanations in Eastern Europe. The history of each people is bound up and interwoven so tightly that even the seemingly objective, generalist sentence that started this paragraph
hides enormous meaning and inaccuracy.

***

Before walking in from the grim concrete anteroom, I dropped to a hum.

The courtroom was small and blessedly free from cigarette smoke. A television was bolted to the wall and showing an old episode of Law and Order with Cyrillic subtitles; the volume was turned up and distracted from the judge’s questions as she confirmed the police report.

“What you do this Kah-noe journey to accomplish?”

To meet and engage with new cultures and their judicial systems, apparently. I held my tongue. “To explore Europe by water, ma’am.”

Much of the eight hours we spent engaged with the National Police was taken up with them trying to find out which law we had broken. We joked with our erstwhile captors that they should name the law after us, as it seemed that we were the first people to have broken it. We all had a good laugh at that one.

***

We’re on a road to nowhere …

A whole day running around the city with jovial police escort, from the Strangers Department to the Post Office and back, to the central bank, to the police headquarters and then to see the judge, and finally back to the Department for our signed in triplicate declaration of having spent a huge amount of time, energy, and money unbreaking a small, arbitrary law—turns out, we were held for ‘entry by unusual means’. Americans, it seems, rarely come by canoe.

We now have seven days to reach the Romanian border before we become illegals again. Let’s hope for no headwinds.

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  • K Olsen

    Cool trip, good luck. I look forward to reading the updates.

    I’m questioning the claim to be the first modern canoe crossing of North America. Jim and Lisa Lisius, staff members at the Maine Canoe symposium do some of their teaching in a boat they paddled 5100 miles across the USA. Seems like it might have been a comparable trip…

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