Mongol Rally: Funny Things Happen on Account of Us Being Foreign

08/01/2011 10:26 am ET | Updated Sep 30, 2011
  • Grif Peterson Master's Candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Heart stuck in Central Asia.

One of the big draws of the Mongol Rally are the incredible stories I'd heard from previous competitors. After your car dies in the middle of nowhere, a Tajik farmer you coincidentally come across happens to be the world's foremost expert in alternator repair, which you learn after he invites you into his home and feeds you an impossible amount of delicious of food. You meet his daughter and the two of you marry a year later. Stories like that.

Saturday July 30 gave us our first good example of the serendipitous nature of the Mongol Rally and the wonderfully supportive people you meet along the way.

After emerging in our bus from what amounted to little more than a 20km bike trail, we passed through the Bosnian/Serb border with no trouble. After an obligatory Turkish coffee and complimentary hard boiled egg at Kafana Gazella, we noticed an odd clicking noise in the rear left wheel. We took it to the local mechanic who furrowed his brow and shook his head in an international recognized symbol of despair. Fortunately for us, there was a bus repair shop 2km down the road and they would likely be able to help.

And help they did.

We drove our creaking bus up to what appeared to be nothing more than a deserted barn but were captivated when we turned the corner and were face to face with a bus garage the size of an airport hanger. In lieu of airplanes, a fleet of approximately 50 buses, in various stages of operation, lay scattered around the lot. Two good natured but slightly confused shop attendants called the boss, who promptly emerged from his home on the hill to look into our situation. Within twenty minutes, our bus was up on a jack with the wheels off and three men underneath trouble shooting. A few bolts on our rear left wheel were crooked, which meant that the holes that slide onto the wheel bolts were becoming slightly misshapen and not tightly holding the lug nut. No matter, this shop happened to have a laser metal cutter that could churn out new ones if need be.

As it turned out, Autoprevoz Janjusevic, where we found ourselves that afternoon, was a regional hub for bus repair in the Balkans, and the director and namesake, Vinko Janjusevic, was the man who was underneath his bus.

Another ten minutes and the bus was back on its own six wheels, with the original bolts straightened and comfortably situated in new wheels. When he refused any payment for his work, we insisted he take a bottle of wine that we had on us. He graciously accepted and turned on his heels towards his office. He returned a minute later with a handle of homemade rakija moonshine for us, as well as business cards so we could call with future questions and monogrammed pens from his shop. We took photos for our respective websites and were ready to head out when one of the shop keepers emerged from a garden by the shop with a canvas bag filled to the brim with tomatoes and various types of peppers that he had grown.

Practically beyond speech with gratitude at this point, we offered both men two of our last Florida mangos, which my teammate Kishor had picked from his backyard in Miami before the rally. They were intrigued by this alien fruit and excited to try it. I wrote down the words "mango" and "Miami, Florida, USA" so that they could share with their children.

We left the lot towards Kosovo (via Montenegro due to recent border angst) and I couldn't help but laugh at what had just unfolded. At noon we were scared we would be stuck in a Serbian border town indefinitely with a broken bus. At 1:30, we were trading California Shiraz for local moonshine and swapping fruit that was both locally grown, albeit 5,500 miles apart from one another.


Mongol Rally