When I got called back for reservist duty last month, I was desperate for some way to get out of it. So when my editor asked me to go to Serbia to feature the launch of Voda Voda, I jumped at the chance. After all, even a third world country running at 38 degrees heat is better than reservist duty, right?
Serbia is surprisingly modern, for a country still known mostly for Slobodan Milosevic, genocide, and the reputation of a third world country, at least to most people. Those who know better are probably reluctant to tell, because they don't wanna lose the place to noisy tourists who come snapping pictures and gawking at everything. Like me.
The rich past that originates from Serbia's Slavic background is present even today, in some of its cultures and celebrations. An example is the Slava festival, which mixes Druidic worship of the forest with Christian Orthodox practices. It gives a unique feel to this country, immersed in Central European, Middle Eastern and Christian cultures for centuries. Serbia has managed to amalgamate it into one culture, much like our own culture. Perhaps that's why I feel right at home here, in this land I've never been to before. I guess in my heart, I'm a hobbit too.
The communal (not communist) style of life still exists very much in Serbia. As me and some friends stepped out of the Voda Voda resort area to explore Banja Vrujc (pronounced Ban-ya Vru-yee-see), we were greeted warmly by very friendly villagers, who insisted on us joining them for a drink even though the only words I know how to say in Serbski were 'Thank you' and 'English?'
It's amazing how food and alcohol can communicate beyond language. Later we found out that the villagers had fulfilled William Blake's dream of ale in the church, because that's what we were doing: knocking back a few at the church.
In fact, Serbian nightlife is so much more fun than Singaporean nightlife. The music is so smooth; you'll think you're floating in clubbing heaven. They have clubs that cater to dance, techno, electronica, house, deep house, right next to each other, so if you don't like one, feel free to jump to the next.
Everybody is so friendly, you feel right at home. There are clubs even in Vrujci, which has a population of only 2,000. And they know how to party. And for those of us that don't know Serbski except Engliski, music is truly the universal language.
Even if our words couldn't express the amount of fun we had partying with the locals, our body language did. In fact, the location of their clubs in Belgrade, right on the Sava River, makes it feel like Sentosa every night, except with much cheaper drinks and much more good-looking people. Gorgeous women who look like they do a lot of bingeing and puking are everywhere. And seriously, with their style of food, I'm really wondering how come all of them look so slim and booby. Probably something in the Voda (that's Serbian for water) everyone's drinking.
Voda Voda and the legend of Vrujci
The people of Serbia have known about the water that springs out of the Vrujci region for centuries. There is a legend that a man left his horse, which was dying and sick at the Vruvci spring for dead. The sick horse lay in the mud and was rejuvenated by its healing properties, and as it drank it regained its strength and health, and returned to its owner. People then began to drink from the spring.
Which brings us to Voda Voda and Arteska International, the company that produces the cool bottled water that you've seen in supermarkets and several stylish eateries. It's cuboid, transparent and unique. And that's probably the best word to describe Voda Voda. Even its naming is strange. Who the hell would sell something called "Water Water"?
I mean can you imagine buying Kiehl's if it was called "Shampoo Shampoo"? "Voda Voda" is the purest water on earth, completely unfiltered, untouched by human hands, until after everything's been sealed. Hence the double generic.
And when you've had Voda Voda water and only Voda Voda water for 6 days, it's a bit of a downer to come back to tap in Singapore. I'm thinking that's a really good marketing technique. Gets you hooked on the stuff. In fact, the Voda Voda spring shoots out of the ground from an underground spring at 800 litres a second from several places in the Vrujci region, and there's so much that it's used to fill the local swimming pools, and for bathing.
After all, it just goes to waste if it's not drunk anyway. It sounds awfully extravagant to Singaporeans, but then that's probably because we pay buckloads for water here.
In fact, Arteska supplies 80% of all drinks in Serbia, from fizzy drinks to Voda Voda water, of course, and even vodka. Vertical vodka is 80-proof vodka, wonderfully packaged in a bottle with a fantastic design that actually won a prize for its design. And I'm not gonna spoil the surprise for you. When you see it, you'll be queuing to buy it. And it's not everyday that you get an alcohol that happens to be a work of art as well. Kind of gives a new meaning to "appreciating art" doesn't it?
Arteska also produces Gorki List, a medicinal alcohol containing 26 medicinal herbs, that enjoyed by most Serbs, and men and women. It tastes vaguely like Yomeishu, but watch out, it will go right through you like a slap, that's how strong it is to the uninitiated.
Aside from that they also make a lovely chocolate liqueur that is currently my favourite alcohol, replacing Bailey's from its 8-year reign. Also, coming to Singapore in a while is a coconut liqueur, just waiting for a cocktail mix. There is also a cherry liqueur that tastes like a Cosmo. No need to mix anymore, it's instant, for the busy professional who needs to unwind and doesn't want to get her hands dirty.
Arteska also has many new products in store for you. Coming soon are Voda Voda 2, a carbonated version of Voda Voda, and Voda Voda in a new glassware packaging, still in the same cubist inspired style. There's even talk of a beauty line by Arteska, using Voda Voda water too. When they say "Water for life", they meant it. So watch out Singapore, we're getting a major injection of Serbian life. And I for one cannot wait to get another taste of it.
Today, Serbians swear by water from the Vrujci region. People come from all over Serbia, travelling hundreds of kilometres to collect buckets of water for drinking. The locals say it is good for the eyes, bowels and helps in arthritis as well. The mud that the Voda Voda water runs through is another local draw, which people apply all over their body. It's good for sinuses, rheuma, menstrual cramps, skin, just about every minor thing Singaporeans have. And judging from the general fantastic health of the people, I wouldn't be surprised if it was true.
Looking to do business in Serbia? Start here:
Government of Serbia-Montenegro Gov.yu
Serbian Investment and Export Promotion Agency siepa.sr.gov.yu
B92 Radio; This former dissident radio station provides comprehensive news about the region on the air (93.8 on the fm dial) and on its website B92.net.
In Your Pocket Guide; The Belgrade edition of this guide to central and eastern Europe has an excellent list of hotels, restaurants, and other services - most of which is available on their website, inyourpocket.com