Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Our Driving Nightmare

Call a Helicopter!

The minute we drove into Sarajevo, I had two worrisome premonitions. One occurred immediately after I was told that Bosnia uses speed control radar boxes and that I would lose my driving privileges if I received two traffic citations. Erica (aka "lead foot") and Brayden worked the summer in Maryland where they have speed trap radar and we received notifications almost every week of their vehicular transgressions (to be fair, I also received one myself from the 2 days that we visited them!). The speed limits vary from road to road. If you miss a posted sign, you can easily find yourself going too fast completely unawares. And here is the kicker. You find out that you have a ticket 6 months after it occurs. The police just showed up at the church today with two tickets from this summer...a few months before we got here. So I have no idea if I have 20 outstanding tickets already, or not. But we have been driving all over Bosnia these past four months so I am assuming that I will have to pay the piper soon.
Our sweet ride here in Sarajevo!!!
But my real driving fear involves the roads in and around Sarajevo. To understand this fear, you have to understand Sarajevo. The city is located in a valley surrounded by mountains. So the city is built up into those mountains. The roads are windy and go up very, very steep hills. Anyone that lives in the U.S. has never seen a road like this.
The view from our backyard. Tiny roads go straight up these hills.
And Sarajevo is an old town. This means that there are many streets which wind in and out of tight houses. The second day in Sarajevo we went down a road in our little Hyundai (thank goodness we have a small automatic car here) which unexpectedly dead ended. I was able to turn the car around and drive out. But I realized that there would probably be a day when I would not be able to turn around and I would have to reverse out of one of these long, windy roads. Getting stuck on one of these windy hills and having to back out a quarter mile or so is my second driving fear!

This street is straight and flat but it is a good example of the width of the streets.
Despite these fears, driving has been quite enjoyable here in the Balkans. There are a number of small roads that wind in and out of mountainous valleys. I have already posted about a favorite drive between Jayce and Banja Luka. We found another world class drive in the Julian Alps in Slovenia. Since I have not been pulled over (although we were "booted" once) and have avoided getting stuck on a dead road, I have been feeling quite confident about driving here.

Snapped this picture along the side of the road in Slovenia. What a fun drive this is.
We have monthly district meetings with all of the missionaries in Bosnia. In November we were excited to also get to meet with the missionaries in Serbia; a two-zone conference. This meant that we would travel to Beograd Serbia. Because there are 6 missionaries here in Sarajevo, we got special permission to rent a van so that we could all travel together.

We thought we were parked in a free lot at a grocery store. Ooops. Fortunately it was only 20 BAM to get the boot off.
The mission tries to equip its missionaries with automatic vehicles whenever possible. This is not the norm, however, in the Balkans. Most cars are manual. Since I have been driving manual most of my life, it was not a big deal to me to rent a manual van. In fact, I kind of prefer driving manual vehicles.
Our big 9-passenger van for the trip to Beograd. I nicknamed it the "bus" because that it what it felt like driving it.
In the words of the great Will Smith, "pay attention, here's the thick of the plot." Driving this van away from the rental lot and to our apartment, I realized that it was very different driving a bus around Sarajevo. I was a little agitated when Dionne insisted that I pick up the missionaries at the church; which is on a tight road with cars lined on one side. And then I worried more about getting out of town from there. There are a lot of small one-way streets in old Sarajevo. Google Maps seemed to have a pretty easy way to get us out of town but Google Maps has been wrong many times in the past here in Bosnia.

This is an illustration of a Sarajevo Google Maps problem. On Google Maps, this stairway is actually listed as a through road. I guess if I had a dirt bike it could be considered a road!
We picked up the missionaries and headed out of town. Google Maps tried to take us right next to "Pigeon Square" and then out of town. Unfortunately, the road next to Pigeon Square is one-way the wrong way. Which means that when we got there we could not pull onto the main road out of town. So we made a quick turn left and Google Maps recalculated another route for us to get onto the road out of town. I began to be a little concerned as the road started to narrow and we began to drive up some pretty steep hills. But Dionne was reading Google Maps and was pretty certain that we had a way out of town. Google doesn't tell you anything about going up and down hills, road conditions, or road size. We took a few turns that were pretty harrowing. I had to slow down to 10 kph and had less than 6 inches of clearance on either side. But we were things were going well enough. Besides, Elder Rasmussen had prayed that we might have "fun" on this trip. So what could go wrong?

This is an accurate picture of the road we ended up on. The yellow is what the mapping software lead us to believe. What is not shown is that the road that we turned down is straight down hill! 
Once we were at the top of the hill, Google Maps indicated a left turn would take us down to the main road. We took that turn although the road was even smaller than the ones that we had been driving on. We were just ready to get out of Sarajevo; looking forward to a nice relaxing dinner in downtown Beograd.

Immediately after making the turn the road tightened even more. We down a small hill with buildings impossibly close on both sides. Made another turn and then saw a car parked along the side of the road. It would be impossible for us to go past this car. So we had to stop the van and investigate.

This is the "road" just beyond the parked car's rear bumper. Our "road" essentially turned into a walking path down the hill. 
Unbeknownst to us, we had turned onto a dead end. My driving nightmare was about to be fully realized. We had gone down a steep hill, we were 150 meters down a narrow dead-end road, we did not have enough space to turn the van around, I was driving a "bus", and it was a manual transmission. The gravity of our situation struck me as I got out and looked around. Not life or death mind you. But we had messed up big time! There is one great truth in life: Never Trust Google Maps!!!

Trying to figure out what to do. Our first attempt was to turn around. But we did not have enough room to do a thousand-point turn. (Pictured are Sisters Locey and Higley and Elders Isom and Rasmussen.)
We tried to turn around. There was not enough space. The residents of some of the houses emerged to kindly inform us that we were not supposed to drive on this road. The missionaries had a little chat with them and they were very friendly. One lady invited in for a quick drink, to eat, and maybe use the bathroom. Nobody had any suggestions about how we should get the van out of there though. They had never seen anyone do something quite this stupid before!
Preparing to back the van out.

We decided our only option was to back the van out. I walked up the road and determined that there was not a place where we would be able to turn the van around on this road. We would have to back out the entire way.

The first part was not too bad. As you can see by the pictures above, the initial hill is not that steep and the road not that curvy. We had several feet of space on both sides of the van. Dionne and the missionaries helped guide me as I reversed the van up the hill.

Slow work but we made reasonably good least initially.
After the first 50 meters or so, the road curved around a couple of fences. It was very tight driving forward through this section. Driving backward seemed like an impossible task. I had very little room to spare on either side of the van. And to complicate matters even more, the van did not like being back up such a steep grade. Because I had to inch my way along these roads, I had to ride the clutch. We started to notice some smoke coming from the engine. But there was no other way to get the van out of our predicament.

This was the toughest spot. I had to get as close to the driver side as I could because I was turning around this corner. You cannot tell from this picture but I am also going up a slope here. Every time that I would restart the van would lunge forward a few feet due to gravity. Thank goodness for my spotters helping me get out.
At this point we are at least an hour into our little sidebar. But if we can get around this one final tight corner, we knew that we could back the van out the rest of the way. Things were finally looking up. I was quite impressed by how well we worked together as a team to solve this problem. A small crowd of locals had gathered around us and were enjoying the "silly Americans" show that we were putting on for them.

This is what I was looking at on the other side of the van. Through this whole thing, the only damage we did to the van was a slight scratch on the drivers side mirror. Well, at least physical damage to the exterior.
Just as we were ascending this final tight hill shown in the pictures above, the clutch which I had been riding mercilessly, gave out. It dropped straight to the floor. At first I was not sure what had happened so I tried several times to get the van to reverse. It would not. We were stuck now with a broken van...just moments away from a triumphant driving victory. And, to make matters worse, one of the locals, a taxi driver, needed us to move our van so he could drive his taxi up the road.
Elder Rasmussen chilling...stuck with a dead van and nowhere to go.
So we had to pull the van back down to the original starting position. And call the rental car agency and ask for help. Dionne and I met the Enterprise rep at the top of the hill and walked him down to the car. On the way down he said that he liked to solve problems. We asked what the worst situation he had ever had was. He mentioned a car that had broken down along a small mountain road. And then he got a look at our little problem. We immediately jumped to the top of his "worst ever" list.

His initial response to the question of "How are we going to get this van out of here?" was classic: "Call a helicopter." From where I stood, it looked like that was about the only way to get the van out. We talked for a few minutes before taxied back to the rental agency to pick up a different car. He tried to call a tow truck but no trucks would come down this little road. It was starting to get dark as we left and he did not have a solution. So we left him on the road, talking on his cellphone, trying to figure out how to extract the van.

This is our friend from Enterprise. We happened to be renting another car from him tonight and he let me take his picture as he was inspecting the car. 
When we returned a few days later from Beograd, we asked what had happened to the van. They had to call a 4-wheel drive jeep that back down the road, attached to the van, and drove it out. It took about 3 hours in the pitch dark for them to get the van out. They had to fix the clutch, repair a few things in the engine, and fix the scratch on the mirror. Since the "incident" was driver negligence (thanks to Google), Dionne and I had to cover all of these repairs. Thank goodness for Bosnia prices!

And at least we have a fun story to tell.

1 comment:

  1. One of the joys of a mission is being able to tell stories like this AFTER your mission. Experiencing them live is not quite as enjoyable. We had an elder who told us he had never been held up, kidnapped, or car jacked on his mission…he said he would have no great stories mission adventures to tell his children and grandchildren!