It was the number of references that caught my eye. This “Nenad” from Niš had almost 700 references on his CouchSurfing profile from hosts and surfers.
What on earth has he been up to? I wondered. Then I read his profile.
He spent 14 months hitchhiking from Serbia to Hong Kong. He worked as a “freelance” taxi driver in Kiev using his own car. He managed a Latvian hotel, but didn’t speak the language. He was interrogated at the Belarus border, suspected of being a spy.
But before I’d read all that, I’d already decided this was a guy I needed to meet.
At the top of the list of things Nenad had written in the section titled One Amazing Thing I’ve Seen or Done was this: “survived overland trip through Afghanistan disguised as a bearded local, wearing local clothes, and pretended to be deaf and mute. My chances of being kidnapped or killed were just 30% :)”
I gotta meet this guy.
• • •
I’m not sure what I’m expecting while I wait outside the Niš bus station, but the smiling guy who pulls up in a small white car isn’t it. He hops out to help me with my bag, taking off his aviator sunnies to reveal the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen. So this is Nenad.
Nenad is something of a Niš and CouchSurfing identity. I’m not the first person to write about him. People around the world have been a part of his journey and the CouchSurfers he’s hosted (I was guest number 205) make him part of theirs. It doesn’t take me long to realise there aren’t many people like him in the world, let alone Serbia.
Many of the Serbs I meet don’t travel much, if at all. I’m told most don’t have a passport, and it’s not because their identity documents were stolen in any of the conflicts this country has been involved in over the years. They just don’t want to travel.
“They just have excuses,” Nenad says when I ask about this.
But Nenad has an exceptional adventurous spirit. He’s explored Europe extensively and it is easier for him to list the countries he hasn’t visited in this part of the world than the ones he has. He paid for his travels by selling movies “before people discovered the Internet”. His room is decorated with movie posters of all genres and just as I’m about to leave he shows me his collection. “I have to show you my wardrobe,” he says and then opens a cupboard, pushes a few winter coats aside, slides open a small door and steps through the cupboard into a square room filled with thousands of DVDs. Travel tales aside, he’s a fascinating guy.
Nenad is 29 and, like most people his age in Serbia, is living with parents when he’s home. But that isn’t very often. The only reason he’s back in Serbia at the moment is because he ran out of pages in his passport. His old one is barely recognisable as an official document and the new one, only a few weeks old, is already dotted with stamps from a quick road trip into Bosnia and Croatia. His car has travelled thousands of miles, but his most impressive journeys have been done with someone else driving. Well except for the time Nenad had to steer the car from the passenger seat because the Croatian driver was so drunk.
Over coffee on my last day, the subject of travel comes up (again).
“I travel in a very crazy way. Very intense,” he says. That’s a contender for understatement of the year.
Nenad’s most recent long-term adventure took 14 months. He started in Serbia and hitchhiked through Bulgaria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and into China where he got a job teaching English for a while. I was most curious about his experience in Afghanistan in May 2012 – a story he’s told so many, many times.
In Herat he stayed with members of the Taliban.
Members of the group took him in before helping him with the rest of his trip.
“The Taliban I met told me which bus to catch,” Nenad says, in the same tone as if he was telling someone I had told him which bus to catch.
While those Taliban members were helpful, Nenad was cautious during the rest of his travels in the country.
To “fit in”, he grew his beard, wore local clothing and although he knew some Farsi words from his time in Iran, in many places he pretended to be deaf and mute so as to not be identified as a foreigner. He also learned to pray like a Muslim. His disguise kept him out of trouble while he travelled through parts of Afghanistan where there was a very real danger he could be captured or killed.
Nenad was detained in several countries and even has a picture of the officials in Afghanistan. While examining his camera they accidently took a photo of themselves. They look puzzled.
He CouchSurfed the whole way, although not always officially. Many of his drivers invited him to stay with them. Or Nenad simply asked people for somewhere to sleep. That was how he ended up staying in a Turkish furniture store, until the owner decided his store wasn’t good enough and invited Nenad back to his house.
No doubt at some point in this story, you’ve began to think of Nenad as reckless or stupid. He is neither. He has an incredible amount of faith in the kindness of others because he’s experienced it.
In China he spent a week with no money and went to the bank to sort his credit card out. The people at the bank fed him all day.
Chinese police also insisted on paying for a hotel for him and a bus ticket.
Of all the places he’s visited, the only major incident he tells me about is the time a cop planted drugs on him in Tajikistan and then bribed him.
Nenad is calm and conversational when he discussed his adventures, but he’s not naïve. He knows what he’s achieved, how incredible it is and also, how lucky he has been.
“When I made it through Afghanistan, I thought ‘Ok, I won’t do that again’.”
He managed to convince his mother that travelling through the Middle East wasn’t that dangerous, but she wasn’t happy when he told her he’d learnt to ride a motorbike in Laos.
While Nenad has seen the world at the hands of kind strangers, it’s a kindness he passes on. While back in Serbia he almost considers hosting an occupation. In the small three-room flat he shares with his parents, CouchSurfers are nightly guests. While hanging with other surfers and hosts by the river on my second night, Nenad invites an Australian girl and her Polish friend, to stay as their host has fallen through and they were planning to sleep in their car. His stories are amazing and he doesn’t seem to mind telling them again and again.
Now he’s studying for his TEFL exam before he moves to Indonesia to live with his girlfriend, who he met in Myanmar. He’s undecided how he’ll get there yet. “I’d like to go through Pakistan, but I don’t think driving a car through there is safe.”
So he has some limits.