“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”—Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I’ve been robbed, I’ve been robbed, I’ve been robbed!”
I look down at her from the top berth. “Huh?”
“I fell asleep with my phone in my hands – and now it’s gone!”
I have a bird’s eye view of the entire cabin. I can’t see the missing item. “Maybe you just dropped it, I bet it’s under the luggage that’s crammed in the aisle.”
She ignores me and flips open her wallet – and when she sees it’s completely empty, she starts shrieking.
“All my money is gone! I had two hundred Euros in here!”
Everyone else is awake now and I’m in a bit of a groggy haze from not sleeping all night – but I can’t see any way my compartment mate could have been robbed. There are six people in here: two are her friends, one is myself, and the other two are the canoodling French couple. When I returned to the cabin about an hour ago, everyone was asleep – and I remember seeing her phone in her right hand as I awkwardly clambered up to lie here, with my knees pressed against the train’s tin roof.
I hop down off the top bunk and move everyone’s luggage around. Nothing. Looks like she’s right, they’ve been stolen – but how?
The cabin door is ever so slightly ajar, and as I slowly regain my wits, I remember a Serbian man entering our compartment to mend one of the light fixtures. I didn’t pay much attention to what he was doing, because when you haven’t slept in over 30 hours you reach a point of exhaustion where nothing truly registers. And light fixture maintenance certainly qualified for the spam folder of my mind.
Fact is, I’m burnt out. I’ve spent most of the night in cabin one, the place I was reassigned to when the Syrian refuges boarded the train in Greece about ten hours ago. The cramped compartment wasn’t the only thing that kept me from sleeping – the train was constantly stopping and starting, and I must have been asked to show my passport and ticket at least twenty times throughout the night.
When we got to the Macedonian-Serbian border in the middle of the night a new set of Syrian refuges were allowed to board the train.
This group of tormented migrants had just walked the entire way across Macedonia – because, for a reason I will never understand, they were banned from using public transportation there. As if fleeing a gruesome civil war in their homeland wasn’t enough? Or hearing of their friends or family being tortured or killed? No. Macedonia’s government decided to turn the horror up another notch by forcing them to walk hundreds of miles to reach safety. I’ll never understand this decision.
Regarding today’s robbery, it seems like a mystery solved. It was the guy pretending to fix the light. While I move everyone’s luggage back into the aisle – I suddenly realize the train has stopped again.
What the hell?
It’s 6:00 A.M. We should be arriving in Belgrade within the next hour – but we’re not moving, and the air inside this forty-year-old train is quickly getting stale. It’s already sweltering hot inside our tin-can cabin, even though the Serbian summer sun has just crept up. I rush over to the window and see that a handful of people have gotten off the train. Most are just milling around the tracks, but a few are beginning to move down them with all their belongings in hand.
“This can’t be good,” I announce to everyone in my cabin. “I’m going to find out what’s going on.”
I climb off the train in a bit of a panic, and search out one of the conductors. He’s a short, beer-bellied Serbian man that’s been of little help since the moment alighted the train. I tell him that the British girl in my cabin has been robbed and then ask why we’ve stopped.
He replies in a harsh English accent. “Old train, need part.” Then he stares at his styrofoam cup of instant coffee and says, “Maybe take three hour or three day.”
The train has clearly broken down and I can see steam rising off its engine, but I don’t want to believe it. Really? I’d expect this in Africa, but not in Europe, surely?
“Where are those people going?”
In response, he points down the tracks, looking annoyed at my questions. “Small town, bus stop, bus go Belgrade.”
I follow his finger, but all I see is a tunnel of towering Serbian spruce trees and overgrown wild flowers.
He takes a long unconcerned drag from his cigarette, blotting out the smell of jasmine surrounding us. “Maybe five kilometer walk.”
“What do you think I should I do? How long will it take to fix the train?”
“I tell you already, maybe three hour, maybe three day.”
“At what point is trying to travel around the world going to get easier? If it’s not heartbreak, it’s money problems – if it’s not money problems, then its travel issues – and if it’s not travel issues, it’s heartbreak. And round and round I go.”
Having no idea what I’m talking about, he walks away, puffing on his cigarette. I’m left standing there alone – and now I have a very unwelcome decision to make. I shake my head in disbelief at all this. Do I wait inside this baking monster, where I’m stuffed into the tiny top berth for what could be a few days, with no food or water?
The tracks disappear as they curve into a bend. I shake my head at that choice too. I’m not really in the mood to chance it, with all my belongings, just so I can find this tiny Serbian town he’s talking about.
Nevertheless, here I am. If the middle of nowhere was an actual point on the map, this would be it.
I head back to my cabin with my head down and report the no-win situation to my compartment mates who are trying to console the girl whose been robbed – she’s still crying, and understandably so, I probably would be too. I grab my things and mutter, “You guys can join me if you like.”
The group quickly agrees to follow me off the train because they must make it to Belgrade by noon in order to catch their connection to Budapest; they booked their entire trip out before they left England, trains, tours and hotels included, which is a shock to me.
I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants for so long that I’ve completely forgotten that when people travel they normally plan out their trips in advance like this.
The six of us pass through the caboose and begin to make our way down the tracks. They track ties are wooden and spaced just far enough apart that it’s too big of a gap for one even step and two short of a gap for two smaller steps. It’s the little things that grind away at your mood. Inside each awkward step, my fifty-pound duffel bag gets heavier and heavier, balanced above the backpack that holds all my camera equipment, and it’s running the long way across the tops of my shoulders like a giant crucifix. No choice: I can’t roll it across the rocks between the train-track ties, and it’s too heavy to lug by my side…
I don’t even know where we’re going. I can’t see anything, because the trees that line the tracks are so dense. I wouldn’t be surprised if this town doesn’t even exist, and that the conductor sent us on this wild goose-chase just to amuse himself.
It’s no long before I start thinking that this was a really bad idea.
Another group of travelers catches up to us, as they too have decided to hike for it. It’s a group of Syrian refugees.
As all our feet slap on the wooden track ties, I imagine that this is what life has been like them since they left Syria. Just a series of walks into the unknown, triggered by tragedy, bad luck or the small-minded fears of others. I’m tired after just thirty minutes of it and they’ve been doing this for months.
It’s not long before the suffocating early morning heat starts taking its toll and people begin cramping up. Exhaustion quickly sets in and we have to stop and rest. The train is no longer in sight and sweat is cascading off most of us. I haven’t eaten today, and my hands begin to shake as my blood sugar dips. And that’s me – a tall, strong man in relatively good health with a few good meals in his recent past. How is everyone else faring? I turn to them, embarrassed that we’re not there yet.
“I don’t really know where we are going. I didn’t think it would be this far.”
Ethan, the Oxford student that has assumed the role of second-in-command, says, “Does anyone see any kind of opening in the tree line or any sign of a town nearby?”
This is getting desperate. We need water. I’ve run out. We’ve all run out. The train didn’t have a dinning car so there’s been no way to get food or water since we left Thessaloniki yesterday afternoon. We can get by without food for a while, but water is critical. At least in Africa the buses would provide some sort of relief on long journeys and pull over every few hours so passengers could buy fruits and vegetables and bottles of water through the bus’s windows. Comparative luxury.
Someone towards the back of the group calls out, “Maybe we should just go back.”
Then another says, “Yeah, maybe we should.”
Then another and another.
Just as I’m about to agree and give in, and go back to sit on the train for however long it takes – a car shoots out from the trees and across the tracks, about a half of a mile in front of us.
Ethan yells, “That must be the opening!”
Onwards! I hike my bag back up onto my shoulders and I give the group their marching orders. My bag is agony now. Because of the way it’s positioned, I can’t look up, I can only look down at my feet. I can only see each step I’m taking. Just one foot in front of the other.
Around me, the Syrians are similarly intent on reaching our destination. As always, they’re walking into the unknown. If this Serbian town magically materializes around the next corner, I can start finding a way to get back on track, to continue my journey in a reasonably safe, somewhat predictable way. Ethan will do the same; so will my other carriage-companions. But the Syrians? Nothing is predictable. Nothing is safe. In broad daylight, they’re all walking into the dark.
All across Europe, similar stories are playing out. Tens of thousands of them, right this second. So much pain and misery and fear, aggravated by international bureaucracy, by ignorance, by so many failures in basic human decency towards people who never asked for this…
The tracks stretch on and the sun beats down.
One foot in front of the other.