A Pilgrimage Not Taken

You will be wondering how I manage to upload posts, without, as is our situation here, most of the accoutrements of modern civilisation. There are Wi-Fi hotspots in some cafés in the towns but none out here in the villages. We rely instead on the Wi-Fi cart.

There is an old man with an ox-cart. For as long as anyone can remember he has travelled from village to village along the coast selling such things as pomegranates and old transistor radios. With the advent of Wi-Fi he ditched the radios and pomegranates and bought a generator and a receiver, which he makes available to the people in the villages for the brief transitory period as he passes through and for a fee.

I would not like to give the impression that ox-carts are still common here: his is the exception rather than the rule; nor that the system is fool-proof. Yesterday for instance, as you may have noticed, the system uploaded a first draft rather than the most recent one.

More significantly, oxen are slow – proverbially so – but not always slow enough. Often the cart is trundling out of the village and out of range before one’s work is done. What people then do is to bribe the old man to stay. Money, unusually, will not do the trick, but rakia, the local brandy, will. Two people are required for this process: one refilling the old man’s glass with rakia and the other desperately sending (or ‘pinging’ as the charming Montenegrin dialect has it) emails while they still can.

As a result the old man is paralytic by the end of the day. Decisions as to motion, direction and so on can be delegated to the oxen, but these cannot, being dumb beasts, cry the old man’s wares. He must do this, but his call of ‘Wi Fi for you!’ becomes so incoherent by six in the evening that it sounds like nothing so much as a deranged muezzin.

(I am assuming that the muezzin is the man not the message. The ox-cart will not return for some hours so I cannot Google it to check.)

Now, a deranged muezzin is the last thing that you will hear in Montenegro. Since the break-up of Yugoslavia these things have been parcelled out country by country. Croatia has Catholics. Montenegro has Orthodox believers and Cyrillic script. If you want a deranged muezzin you must go to Bosnia.

(I am not suggesting that you would find a deranged muezzin, let alone one who was drunk, in Bosnia or anywhere else; I’m simply describing the sound of the old man as like what a deranged muezzin would sound like, you understand.)

Anyway, the republics of the former Yugoslavia have set their faces against multi-culturalism. There is a phrase for the process, which I have temporarily forgotten.

This was brought forcibly home to me.

Nearly fifty years ago, when I was a schoolboy, I went with five friends to Yugoslavia. One of us, a teacher at our school, had a driving licence. Another had worked in the school holidays as a dragoman and knew sophisticated words of abuse in a number of languages. He is now a QC. The rest of us had no apparent skills for what was then rather an unprecedented adventure. Tito had only very recently opened the country to tourism from the West. We took the train to Belgrade and then hired a car, driving south through what is now Bosnia, and where ox-carts were still the standard form of transport, as far as the Albanian border. Albania was then an impossibly romantic place, entirely closed to foreigners. Their dictator had recently fallen out with the Russian one, as had Tito, but instead of the possibility of welcoming English schoolboys and British currency had opted for the charms of his Chinese counterpart and the thrilling possibility of a cultural revolution of his own.

The highlight of this trip was the town of Pec. I remember the river running through it and the naked little boys surfing the rapids on tin trays. I remember the minarets and the constant muezzins, and side by side the Orthodox churches with golden roofs. There seemed to be music everywhere. I remember in the pompous way of an English schoolboy announcing that the city fathers of Belfast and of Beirut should visit Pec to see how people of different religions could live together in peace.

Memory has no doubt improved Pec, but not that much, as I still have the 8mm film of the trip, transferred to DVD.

I told the better half that we should make a pilgrimage there, and see if it was changed at all. We made some enquiries.

The first strange thing was that Google Maps refuses to admit the possibility of travelling from the Mosquito Coast to Pec.

The second was that the car-hire company said, not in our car.

I asked the owner of the local restaurant (on whose veranda I sit typing this, the sea twenty feet away, the better half on a chaise longue reading Vanity Fair). He laughed like a drain. Have you met Albanians, he said.

Eighty-five per cent of the buildings in Pec were levelled in the war. It is now in Kosovo. Only Albanians live there. They would kill you, no question, he said, either the police or the gangsters. Actually you can’t tell the difference.

But I went there, I said

He looked doubtful.

Forty years ago, I said, trimming a few years out of vanity.

Ah, he said, Tito. It was good then. It was safe, but it was good too.

What people say is that Tito, like Stalin, Saddam and Mao, suppressed religious and cultural practices so that they temporarily ceased to infuriate, and that’s how people were able to live together as now they can’t. But that’s not how I remember Pec, which was vibrant with religious and cultural practices. Well, people went home and complained to each other over the dinner table, the better half says, and she has direct experience of similar things happening before and after the Soviet Union broke up and I suppose that must be right.

It made me very sad, not least because I couldn’t think of any conclusions to draw. I asked the mayor what he made of it. He gestured at the stupendously beautiful bay, the fishing boats, the rich Russians’ yachts, the funky wooden island-hopping yachts, the sinister Soviet-style sanatorium across the bay, now deserted, its windows broken and cypress trees threatening the roofing, the rusty contraption on the jetty in which an old woman is distilling rakia.

One door opens, another closes, he said

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3 thoughts on “A Pilgrimage Not Taken

  1. […] in the London Borough of Newham the ox-drawn Wi-Fi cart, which enables (as attentive readers will recall blogging in Montenegro and the stans further east, has been more or less eliminated on the grounds […]

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  3. […] time we were in Montenegro it was necessary to use the ox-drawn Wi-Fi cart to connect to the internet. In the meantime unfortunately it has passed on. The man who controls […]

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