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Sofia to Belgrade Overnight Train: Guns, Smugglers and Bombs, Part Two, The Trigger Happy Jacks

This is part two of my overnight train adventure. Please read at least the note on part one before continuing

I wondered, vaguely, if I had ever seen someone carrying a handgun before this train ride.

I mean, I’d seen cops and border patrols and expressionless security guards holding an old battered gun at a decorative post, and tough young Israeli soldiers toting around M-16s, alternately looking like they were going to cause someone a lot of pain and laughing as they posed for tourist photographs.

But to be in such close proximity to a handgun, carried by the type of person I most feared a handgun with – a young man with a shaved head, reckless attitude, obscenely large tattooed muscles and arms bearing proof of dozens of knifefights – of that I am not so sure.

After my interesing train bording experience, it was pretty uneventful while I wrote and sat with the four people in my car.

Exhausted after awhile, I gave up and read, telling myself that I would stretch out and sleep as soon as we passed through the border.

While I was reading, a man from the carriage next door stuck his head into my otherwise empty car. “Vino?” he asked, with a bunch of other stuff in Serbian. “No, no wine, thank you,” I said with a smile, and after trying to convince me otherwise, he gave up.

Having returned to my book, I was not surprised when, a few minutes later, the man returned and unceremoniously plopped down in the seats across from me, laid out and pretended to sleep.

He was drunk – his fake sleeping did not fool me for a sercond. And we he quickly gave up the facade and started speaking Serbian to me, I was not surprised.

“I am sorry, I do not speak Serbian.” I said. “I speak little English,” the man said. However, as I soon learned, it wouldn’t stop him from speaking Serbian to me – indeed telling whole stories in the language, while I tried to follow the hand gestures and will myself to understand.

“I have been in Plodiv,” the man said. “At ultimate fight.” He demonstrated, jabbing his elbow up toward my face in mock combat.

“Yes, yes,” I nodded. “I konw ultimate fighting.” While he prattled on about his best friend next door and fighting – all in Serbian with expressions and arm movements to convey some of the meanings, I took the time to study him.

He did, I had to admit, look like someone who would like fighting – or, at least what I pictured someone like that to be. He was close-shaven, dressed in black sweatpants, black leather shoes and a pullover. He was giddy – jovial event, and I found myself smiling as he teased me about my lack of Serbian understanding. Still, he looked like a football hooligan. Vaguely, it ocurred to me that he was the type of Serbian that would have gladly gone to killa nd torture in Bosnia, and made a mental note not to talk about religion.

“How old are you?” he asked in Serbian, drawing 1986 to tell me his 20 years of age. “I am 24,” I responded, holding up my fingers in front of his face. He nodded, pleased.

“What is your na-ame?” The accent was heavy, drawn out.

“Courtney.”

I saw puzzlement on his fact, like it usually does when someone has to make sense of the ‘ney’ part of my name. I tried again, “Court. What is your name?”

“Luka.”

I smiled indulgently at a private memory. My ex-boyfriend – one with a similar swagger, expression-filled arms and accent – and who had first introduced me to the existance of the Balkans, was also named Luka.

“Where from?” Luka asked. “Amerika,” I responded, “Oregon.” He told me he was from Nis, and pointed it out on my LP map. It was about 100 km from the Bulgarian border, in south Serbia. He said something else in Serbian.

For help, I pulled out my dictionary. He took it, amused, and flipped through the pages. “Are you married?” he asked. The memory of shopping for a fake wedding ring in Sarajevo to fend off such request flashed in my mind. “No, I have a boyfriend.” He looked up. “How many years – 1, 2, 3?” He counted the numbers in Serbian. “Three,” I responded.

Luka moved onto other otopics. “Studenti?” “No,” I took the book away from him. ” I am a writer.” I tried to sound out the foreign syllables and pronounce it in his native tounge. “What do you do?”

Again, he made the scrappy fighting motions with his hands, “Ultimate fighting.” I looked at him, confused. When he had mentioned the sport before, I thought he had gone to witness it, not participate.

Seeing the furrowing of my brow, he pulled off his sweatshirt to show his arms. I took a sharp intake of breath, for under the shapeless sweather, LUka had some of the most chisled arms I had ever seen, lovingly crafted from hours of work at the gym and in the ring.

However, it was not his arms that surprised me – rather, it was what was on them. An extensive tattoo ran down the underside of his left arm, starting at his neck and running down to his wrist. It was in honor of his grandfather, he told me later, although I did not see the connection.

On his right bicept with a splendidly vivid joker, his eyes wide open and mouth laughing at some unknown terror. I shuttered; I always hated ugly tattoos.

However, there was something else on his arms too – only on his left arm (his blocking arm, I wondered at first?) were more than 40 knife lines, each one about an inch long and deeply scarred. Did he do it to himself? An alarm bell started ringing faintly in the back of my head.

He grinned at, putting his sweater back on, turned out the inside of his bottom lip to reveal four tattooed letters.

Then, he started pulling down his pants.

“No, no, no.” I said, shaking my head and waving my hands in front of me while I looked out the window. I had no desire to see the tattoo on his penis, no matter how impressive.

He kept saying something and when I glanced back, the groan of “I did not want to see that,” died off at my lips – for then, down the front of his pants, inside a plastic bag, gleamed a chrome handgun.

I froze. Suddenly, the game of trying to translate Serbian and humor a drunk 20-year-old to pass the time wasn’t so much fun anymore. Luka smiled as I tried not to let my panic show.

“Shhh..” he put his fingers to his lips.

His best friend, who had until this point still been lurking in the car next door, suddenly burst in, throwing an empty half-gallon plastic wine jug in Luka’s direction. I cast a glance at him, pretending to be engrossed in my book that was still open in my lip while they argued.

Whereas Luka had revealed himself to be remarkably in shape, his friend had a generous layer of fact covering his muscles and a beer belly. He was even more ugly than Luka’s blank look, with a nose that had probably been broken more than once and watery drunk eyes that wandered in my direction.

“He wants to kiss your head,” Luka said, turning back to me. I laughed nervously. “No, that’s ok,” I said, grinning broadlay to cover up my unease. He leaned in and grabbed the back of my head anyway, kissing my forehead before rising up and sauntering away to terrorize other people. Luka looked at me, “Serbians are crazy.”

And, if to give proof to this broad statement, Luka tapped his chest. “I am your security. You are my gold.” I tittered, forcing myself to take a deep breath in and think. By this point, we had arrived in Serbia, crossing the other border and awaiting the arrival of Serbian customs. I calculated – they lived an hour from the border and, except for the occasional brush of my knee, Luka seemed respectful and cheerful enough, as long as I did not do anything to piss him off.

A customs agent approached. I could hear walking down the the train car, opening up doors and slamming against walls. Luka’s friend came back into my car and sat down. “Shhh,” Luka puit his finger to his lips and adjusted his ‘package’.

“You cannot see it, yes?” I looked at his crotch, shaking my head in disbelief at the situation. “No, no,” I assured him, eger to please, “I can’t see it.”

The customs agent came it. I did not know it then, but they would come through numberous times in the next two hours, shining flashlights into ventilation systems and asking me, gruffly, if I had anything to declare.

Another agent approached, taking the guys national IDs. He spotted the phrasebook in my hands and furrowed his brow. “I speak English, what is the problem?”

Luka shot me a warning look with his eyes – between agents, he had told me he had spent time in prison drove a Volkswagen sports car worth 139,000 euros, was a drug dealer, had bombs (grenades) that he was smuggling and was very, very rich. And liked hurting people.

I swallowed and forced myself to smile. “No, no problem, we are just practicing,” The man relaxed and joked with Luka and his friend for awhile before moving on.

For the next hour, I made small talk with Luka, alternating between fear, amusement and slight shock. Every 15 minutes or so, just in case I forgot, he would adjust the gun and grab his friends crotch, if he was in the car, to make sure that his gun was in the right place, asking me each time if I could tell he was carrying.

I wasn’t quite sure why he showed me the gun. I think that whatever they had in their bags, they looked a lot less suspicious if they were drunk and talking to the American. Although he never threatened me directly, I did not feel like getting up would be the right move either. The whoel time we were talking, I was always more afraid of the gun going off accidentially than anything else – two boys with two new toys. What dealer, smuggler, whatever in his right mind would be flashing guns to a stranger and telling her about it?

Then again, it is entirely possible, I just told myself that to calm down.

Finally, as Luka was telling me about having a wife’s brother (sister-in-law, I think he meant, seeing as how he had told me he was not married), the train began to move.

Immediately, the two of them jumped up and went to the bathroom, quickly returning. Luka’s gun was now stickly proudly into the waistband in front of his pants – instead of down them. They pulled the curtians shut and Luka pulled out the gun. I pulled away at the sight, trying to get as far away from it as possible, as if two inches would make a difference from a shot 2 feet away.

Luka released the cock and pulled back on the slide, dropping the magazine into his lap. The turned the magazine upside down and slid it back into the gyn, recocked it and put it in his pants.

Great, I recall thinking to myself. It is loaded now, or not? His friend went next door to get their bag, opening it up to reveal another gun.

That was it – I had enough. We were over the border and hopefully they had no reason to pester me anymore. “I do not want to see,” I said to Luka. “I do not like guns!” I was shaking. Luka widened his eyes in surprise. “Ok, ok!” he asid, motioning to the window that I should look away.

I shook my head – my luggage be damned, I needed out of that car NOW. “No, no, I want to leave, I will come back,” I said to mollify him. Luka nodded and sheparded me out the door, putting his fingers to his lips. “Shhh….”



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