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2009 Narrative Travel Writing Contest Finalist

The Brandy Making Bee Keeper of Bosnia

Bosnia winding road

I am driving alone, and the speedometer says 60 but it feels more like 90 as a menacing black Mercedes looms like a cyclone in my rear view mirror. As the chilled early morning mist clears I see the vague outline of a haphazardly laden timber truck powering towards me, its illicit cargo lurching violently against decaying, wafer-thin restraining straps.

The road is horrendous, a white-knuckle, energy-sapping ride through cavernous potholes and the pulverized remnants of countless stray dogs.

Welcome to Bosnia, land of jaw dropping countryside, mountains, valleys, mind-boggling history, welcoming people, and without doubt home to the worst drivers on the face of this earth.

The roadside itself is peppered with an eclectic array of shrines, one of which is so eye-catching that I swerve violently off the road for a closer look—a maneuver which draws a prolonged blast from the Mercedes horn and, I imagine, a menacing stare from behind the black tinted bulletproof glass. I get out and find myself dwarfed by a towering slab of slate grey stone which is almost entirely covering in trailing plastic ivy, looped through garlands of equally plastic red roses. From the middle of the battle-scarred stone a faded, black and white Polaroid stares wildly into nothingness. The flimsy dressing of cling film will provide scant protection from the relentless savagery of a Balkan winter. My knowledge of the Serbo Croat tongue is basic at best but amidst the faux fauna I can make out that Misha was 17 years old when he died and left behind three sisters and a grandmother. His parents were doubtlessly lost in the barbarism that swamped this country in the early 90s.

I rejoin the road, vaguely aware that straying from it in a country that has up to a million unaccounted for land mines is not the wisest thing I have ever done.

One lane of chaos becomes two as I skirt around Banja Luka, capital of this northern enclave of the Serbian republic and now temporary home to countless thousands of displaced souls waiting to see what trauma fate will throw at them next.

It is a bustling city where chic boutiques, selling the latest designer gear, vie for space alongside hastily erected street cafes, whose simple fare of spicy cevapi (sausage) and fried cabbage, washed down with the locally brewed pivo (beer) are eagerly devoured for a paltry charge. For an extra few pence the locally grown pickled peppers melt in the mouth, although the fiendishly hot chili sauce accompaniment is not for the faint-hearted.

The road ploughs through litter-strewn suburbs before finally leaving the metropolis and descending through a gorge of impossible beauty as it tracks the path of the emerald green Vrabas river which cascades towards its conflux with the mighty Sava, on the Croatian border at Gradiska.

I finally reach my destination, a dilapidated house clinging precariously to the hillside above Sipovo, a pleasant if unspectacular town in central Bosnia. I’ve come back ten years after my last visit to see old friends and to help out in the annual brandy making process, which takes place every year in early autumn, as the leaves begin to turn and juice-laden fruit is plucked from the arching over laden trees.

Bosnia dilapidated house

As I pull up I can already see sack loads of plums haphazardly assembled in the barn. Some are battered and bruised, but all are waiting patiently to take their place in some of the most ferociously potent slivovitz imaginable. 

From amidst the rotting fruit Brani appears. He is about 50 but could easily pass for double that age. His face is not so much weather-beaten as just beaten. Yet his eyes, deep set and almost black, are bursting with life. A former long distance truck driver, he has an endless supply of sordid tales about life on the road, or at least in the back of his truck. Spurred on by his stoically loyal wife he tells them with misty-eyed relish, pausing only to replace the ever-present scrawny roll-up glued to his bottom lip. Sacha, his mid-twenties son, is with him and we are soon reminiscing, warmed by an open fire and a glass of slivovitz.

I make myself scarce as a pig is ceremoniously dispatched, which means, of course, that I miss out on an important part of day-to-day living in these parts. However the frenzied, desperate, high pitched squeals and subsequent blood gushing under the shed door paint a picture every bit as clear as if I’d witnessed the slaughter first hand. As a final act of ignominy, the recently departed has a six foot stake driven through its length before taking pride of place next to the fire, where it will slowly roast for the next six hours as the family begins a ritual that Brani solemnly informs me has remained unchanged for generations.

In the garden below a dilapidated still is being coaxed into action. A gentle flame licks at a tarnished copper pot which releases its vapors through a tortured melange of pipes. The resulting nectar fills the country air with pungent fruit. Brani strides towards it. With a cavernous hand he reaches for one of the tiny shot glasses that are spread around the still. In spite of having only two good fingers he clasps it with ease, holding it to the light he inspects the brandy, finally giving his approval with the faintest of nods. Brandy making is a communal affair and as the morning passes more and more villagers arrive, ready to proffer advice and offer their services. By mid-afternoon tasting is in full swing and pretty soon makeshift hay beds support those unable to support themselves.  As dusk falls Branko, happy with his day’s work, takes his place in his favorite chair at the head of the table. Removing his cigarette a broad, contented grin spreads across his deeply lined, weather-beaten face, revealing a solitary lower tooth, stained but standing firm.

Bosnia making brandy

The following morning I join Brani to check on his bees. He has five hives in the field below his house and although the path down is well trodden it is with some trepidation that I follow him, mirroring his every step. I guess I’ve just seen one too many lectures on the dangers of land mines. Sacha sits tending the fire, smiling at my fear. In spite of the well-documented evidence, maps, military reports—not to mention the occasional explosion caused by an errant cow wandering where it shouldn’t—Sacha refuses to believe that there are any mines in the area. It always amuses him to see me taking dainty, fairy-like steps any time I leave the hard standing.

Maybe he knows. After all, he lived through the war. I arrived a safe time afterwards full of pre-conceived ideas all formed courtesy of television news and a few hastily written memoirs.

The bees are oblivious to such worries, as so it seems is Brani, who is talking amiably to the several thousand he has within the palm of his hand. They work in perfect harmony, which is my justification for politely refusing his offer of a battered looking hood and threadbare gauntlets as he tries to coax me closer. The honey he collects provides a useful source of income at the daily market—although the way his grand daughters are fingering it down their throats, I suspect this day’s takings will be a little lacking.

At the end of my second day, the fire is finally allowed to die away, and the last drop of slivovitz is bottled and sealed. The weekends toil, where upwards of two dozen people have worked continuous shifts through bitterly cold nights has resulted in 30 liters of pure, unadulterated alcohol, the strength of which is difficult to describe.

As the sun sets on another unblemished autumn sky, we gather together and crack a bottle of the previous year’s vintage. In the background, the sound of gunfire echoes from the hills, probably just hunters, but it reminds me that the dangers in Bosnia demand respect.

Land mines pose an indefinite threat, as does the ceaseless greed of the black-marketers. Politicians continue to plunder the bottomless coffers of well-meaning if stunningly naive donating nations, meaning the infrastructure is barely functioning in some places. There is a minority of hardcore Nationalists who would like nothing better than to turn the clock back fifteen years and plunge the country into murderous chaos once more. But those are negatives. Look hard enough and you can find danger in anything. Bosnia’s risks are manageable and the rewards for the adventurous far outweigh the possible hazards that might lie in your path, or more especially, off it.

Bosnia is on the up, if you wait until it reaches the summit you’ll find the hordes have beaten you to the top.

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