"Welcome to the third world." Zoran greeted us as we deplaned in Belgrade. Ryan's coworker had invited us to his yearly cook-out at his cabin in southern Serbia. There would be swimming, lamb roasting, good wine, and good cheer.
I had figured that Serbia wasn't such a big country, but it took over three hours to drive from the airport to Lake Bor. From our first few minutes' driving we noticed the stark contrasts of this country. It was very common to see abandoned broken-down houses next to tacky mini-mansions. The highways were as good as any in western Europe, while the local roads were nausea-inducing in their bumpiness.
I always expect that poorer countries will be dreary and sad all over. As if the people will be shabby and worn-down, the sky grey, the landscape brown and half-dead. But, as I learned in Tijuana several years ago, and in Serbia recently, people do what they always do: survive and try to enjoy life. The countryside was beautiful. Despite the hardships of people, trees grow, flowers bloom, and the sun shines indifferently. Many parts of Serbia look like my native Montana. But then I would see a large rocket shell in someone's front yard, and be reminded we weren't in Kansas anymore.
Serbia is a mixture of the old and new. On Saturday we were treated to a traditionally-roasted lamb on a spit, after spending the day at a trendy beach bar. Zoran's family and friends were so kind and welcoming to us, and we really enjoyed our stay. Serbia is definitely wilder than western Europe. Every time you forget about its recent history of war, and the tensions that still lurk under the surface, something pops up to remind you. Even at the barbecue, one of the children was walking around with a large toy machine gun. It was funny but also creepy.
When I travel I try to use the experience to learn about a new history and culture. But I think our trip to Serbia was too short to have a handle on any part of it. What I do know is that Serbians, like all other people, have worked to overcome their past. I'd like to go back and see more of Belgrade, but for now I'll have to leave you with my initial impressions of this exotic country.