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    Escaping Serbia, The Night I was Jason Statham

    January 21, 2018

    This is the story of a bus driving hero, of an unlikely band of strangers, complications at a Serbian/Romanian border, and Jason Statham.

    10:30 AM………By 10:30 am, I had taken the bus to the center of Belgrade, ate my final burek, had a coffee, and inhaled about 10 cigarettes of second hand smoke in the tourist office where I was waiting. Things were going well. I was there in the office chatting with some Serbians about San Francisco. They thought it was a dangerous city. Funny, most San Franciscans probably think Belgrade is dangerous. The day had come, after 2 months, that I was leaving Serbia. I had a flight at 7:15 PM from Timisoara, Romania, a city 3 hours away. My transfer was to leave at 10 AM, but this is Serbia….so by 10:45 AM we were on our way.

    10:45 AM……..I was on the road. I was the first in the bus, just the driver and I. My flight was in 8.5 hrs. I had plenty of time. We spend the next 2 hrs picking up people around Belgrade because it was door to door service…..which, is one of those things that when you are on the receiving end, it is nice, but the work to pick everyone up individually is completely inefficient. We pick up a British girl who is cruising around central Europe and the Balkans on a tour before she becomes a nurse, then a woman from Moldova, then a group of 6 Serbian guys who, I will learn, are taking a trip to Morocco together, also on my same flight connecting in Milan.

    12:45 AM……..We finally, hit the highway. Until we pull into a weird garbage processing center and the car parks. He tells everyone to get out. Are we kidnapped?….no, we aren’t kidnapped. We are just changing buses to a larger transfer bus because we have even more people to pick up, great.

    1:45 PM…….We picked up another couple of people including a woman who awkwardly kissed a man she seemed to be romantically involved with, but not comfortable with, another man flying on my flight to Milan and connecting to Vilnius, Lithuania, just to see a soccer match, and a Greek economist heading home to Greece where he is looking forward to drinking his homemade wine. He invites me to Greece, but unfortunately I am already flying to Milan and have plans. Next time, I say.

    We all introduce ourselves, which was interesting because in most countries on these collective buses you kind of just keep to yourself. But, Serbians are like this. They can be cold, but depending on the situation can also be more open than other cultures. Initially, I was keeping quiet with my headphones in, but every person who entered the bus introduced themselves to everyone else; a handshake, a wave, or a little greeting. There is generally a code of behavior that most follow in this region, such as offering coffee or rakjia (homemade traditional spirit) upon meeting someone, shaking hands and communal introductions when sharing a common place, offering women to sit in the front, and not making too much small talk so to avoid being nosey.

    3:00 PM…….We stop at the gas station before the border to get some snacks. I spend my last bits of Serbian Dinar (currency), and we give our passports to the driver so he is prepared at the border. While waiting, I notice clothes hanging up outside a completely abandoned and dilapidated building. Then I see some kids playing outside with a few balls. I had spent the last 2 months working in refugee camps in Serbia and learned understand how certain “squats” look (temporary encampments where refugees live, hide, and plan their crossings of the boarder). I don’t think I would have noticed it before. I pointed the kids, clothes, and house out to the British girl. She had not noticed it, I think most people would not have. Since working at BelgrAID, I have become more exposed and aware of issues and signs related to the migrant crises. Like thousands of other refugees currently in Serbia, this group is likely looking to cross into Romania (EU), or possibly just crossed (or were kicked out) from Romania (EU) and will attempt their crossing into Hungary or Croatia (other EU countries). Their histories are uncertain, but their present is clear: they are living in freezing and below freezing temperatures at night in an abandoned building, worried about police or racist citizens who know they are disenfranchised and have no legal protections, unable to work, and are in a land where they do not know the language or of the culture. Many people are confused about their political opinion of refugees. Even in the industry of humanitarian aid, people are uncertain. It is a very complex issue. However, it is objectively undeniable that the current living situation of these people is very bad and that is why people help. Aid workers do not make judgements, we provide was it necessary to those whose survival depends on charity.

    3:30 PM…….We arrive at the border with Romania. 30 minutes pass at the first boarder check where we provide our passports, then comes the no-man’s land which is about 3 km of space between borders that we drive across, then we arrive to the entry of Romania where we are SUPPOSED to get our passports back. If you have read this far, this is when things get crazy. First, we sit at this final border stop for about 1 hr. Of course, this is Serbia and Romania, non-EU to an EU country so things can take a long time. But, after an hr the time is approaching about 4:30 PM and most of our flights are between 7:15 PM and 8:30 PM so people are starting to get a little more agitated.

    4:30 PM…….The driver has been called out of the car multiple times. There are meetings going on in different rooms as well as outside in the 0 degrees Celsius temperatures (32 F). We are still sitting in the van. It hits me that this 3 hr drive has turned into a 6 hr drive at this point. I remain calm because the airport is small and is only 1:15 hr away. If we leave soon, there should be plenty of time.

    5:00 PM……We are still here. A Serbian man dressed in nice clothes and holding a rather nice breifcase, clearly upset, goes outside and starts asking the border control what is the issue? In the van, people are starting to make nervous jokes about how we might not make our flights, and how we will miss our connecting flights all over the world, and this and that. We learn that there are no more flights until the next day to Milan and knowing Ryan Air, the tickets would likely costs hundreds of dollars because it is last minute.

    5:15 PM……The Serbian man returns and he has found out what the issue is. He tells everyone in Serbian resulting in collective and unsettling laughter and despair. Although unable to understand the language, I get the picture when the man finishes speaking in Serbian then looks at me and says, “we have problem.”

    Turns out, the woman from Moldova lost her passport while traveling in Bosnia. The Bosnian government gave her a temporary piece of paper that says she can travel. Well, Serbia and Bosnia don’t like each other. In fact, less than 20 years ago there was a huge war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. As a result, the Serbian border control essentially took that paper, threw it in the trash can, and told her she was trying to cross into the EU illegally, which is a big-time federal crime. Also, they told the tour company that they were illegally transporting a migrant (smuggling) and are under arrest and owe 2,000 euros immediately to get back the van.

    So, yes, we have a problem….

    5:45 PM…….Now we are starting to really worry. There are 10 of us getting on the flight from Timisoara to Milan at 7:15 PM. We start talking about hitchhiking, we start talking about taking a taxi, we start talking about WALKING…..nothing is possible, it is freezing and we are in the middle of nowhere.

    Then, a big break comes. The bus driver gets a call from the bus company saying another bus is driving to the border from the Romanian side to pick us up. We need to cross the boarder by foot, walk about a kilometer down the highway and there will be a bus that says “GEA TOURS” waiting for us. The driver and the Moldovian woman will wait behind, I don’t know what ever happened to them. We immediately run out of the bus, start yelling saying we will cross the border by foot. We grab our bags and our passports, get them checked by the patrol and start running down the highway. Our flight takes off in 1:15 hrs and the drive is 1:15 hrs.

    6:15 PM…….There is, in fact, a van there. Unfortunately, we have 15 people and the van only sits 9…….But this is Serbia, the locals start yelling “AJDE, AJDE!!!” meaning “LET’S GO”. The driver, at first concerned and obviously nervous, gets a look in his eye like the world depends on him, and raises his head and yells “AJJJJDEEEEE!!!!!” We all get in the van, sitting on top of each other, on top of our bags; I am sitting in the trunk looking out the back window and we start absolutely FLYING down the highway.

    I mean, we are moving! The guy next to me opens his Snapchat and it says we are going 154 km/hr…..thats like 95 mph. Its a two lane road, we are way overweight, and this is a registered tour company! But, this is Serbia! The driver is passing another car every minute. Cars are honking and flashing their lights suggesting police are around, but it doesn’t matter.

    6:35 PM…..The plane takes off in 30 minutes, we are making insane time, but the map says we are still 30 minutes away. Then, it starts to rain and there is heavy traffic as we enter Timisoara. At this moment, I remember looking at my Serbian friend and saying, “I don’t think we will make it.” He looks at me reassuringly and nods his head as if he still believes we still have a chance.

    6:50 PM…….we are 15 minutes away according to the map. But gridlock traffic. Then, the driver, who has been totally in his element as a get-away driver does something incredible. No joke, he turns up the radio, AC/DC is playing, he blasts it, and accelerates the car OVER the center divide onto the rail tracks where the city trams drive. It is outrageously illegal. He SOARS down the tramway until he gets right behind the tram. We make eye contact with the tram passengers who cannot believe their eyes. The driver then exits the tramway, going over curb and back onto the road where he weaves traffic like a bat out of hell. Cars are honking everywhere and we hear sirens go off. I was sure it was for us, but again it didn’t matter. The driver passes the tram, AND BOOM, goes over the curb again and back onto the tramway. The tram is now behind us, and I am looking out the back window of this van watching the tram follow. I am absolutely shocked, but we are laughing and terrified and stoked and rooting the driver on to go even faster. AJDE! AJDE!!

    I look at the Serbian guy next to me, he looks back at me with the sly Balkan grin, nods, and whispers, “Jason Statham.” Perfect.

    For 15 minutes, the driver works his way through the congested city of Timisoara until at 7:08, he swerves through the entry gates to the airport. Our plane leaves in 7 minutes. He skids the brakes in front of the departures terminal and all 15 of us bust out of the 9 person van yelling “GO, GO, GO!” We get into the airport and say “there are 10 of us who need to get onto that flight!” The security check is shut down, but then a guard, wide-eyed, rushes over and fires up the security machine and starts to process us. We put all our bags through, they are checking our bags, I get my ajvar (traditional Serbian red pepper spread) confiscated, but its okay. We go to customs check, and we see an attendant for Ryan Air, we yell “stop the plane, there are 10 of us!” She is astounded and immediately goes over to the desk and picks up the phone….she puts it down, looks at us, we are looking absolutely disheveled after what we have all been through, and she says, “its okay, the plan won’t leave without us.”

    The elation is incredible. The weight is off our shoulder. The idea of missing our flights, sleeping in the airport or finding a hotel, ruining all of our plans and connecting flights was something we just really did not what to deal with. Smiles and even some hugs with these strangers. I wanted to hug the Ryan Air flight attendant.

    7:15 PM…….As we are walking across the tarmac we are smiling and hugging each other. We are filming the moment when get onto the plan. We find our seats and take deep breaths. I tell the story of our trip to some unassuming elderly Italian woman who is completely confused. The plane takes up, I closes my eyes and listen to my heartbeat, which is still pounding in my chest. And I smile. This is travel.