A Soggy Holiday

Three days of rain.  We traveled to Sokobanja from Nis, a choice that was applauded by the couple who ran our hostel.  The wife sucked on her cigarette with a contemplative pull and exhaled the name with pleasure.  Sokobanja.  "It is nice, Sokobanja, very nice," the husband nodded as he rolled his own smoke.  "I will drive you to the bus.  It is raining."  A large, dust-covered framed portrait of Tito was removed from the trunk of their car so that our backpacks could fit.  Little did we know - though the clouds were desperately trying to tell us - that our time in the resort town would mostly be spent in this hotel.
Rain leaked into the lobby and ricocheted off the already full plastic tubs meant to catch it.  A tv buzzed overhead.  The place felt immediately familiar.  These are the sort of hotels that I like to dub a CommuNest.  As functional and inviting as a mall parking garage, they are sprawling, grid-like structures.  With their enormous spaces, high ceiling, dim lighting and little-to-no soft notes, they remind me of high school after school hours.  This institutional feel is only emphasized by the enormous, uniformed staff and the many pieces of rubber-stamped paperwork they produce.  Even our breakfast card was certified.   It harkened back to our time in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova.  Tito's portrait all of a sudden felt like a premonition.  Then, things took an unexpected turn.  We were not alone.
At least 400 children occupied the hotel - some sort of rained out Summer Camp, I assume.  Everything looked even more enormous and faded as the backdrop to its tiny, energetic clientele.  It was like a Roald Dahl novel about a hotel just for children.   At breakfast, we were offered a choice between hot milk and hot chocolate.  The cleaning lady unlocked our door each morning at 8:30am.  Above the age of 12, it was like we were invisible.  By the second day, my clothes were beginning to smell less like smoke and more like hot dog.  The hair salon spent their days braiding fine, blonde hair into cornrows.  These "vacation hairstyles," that are usually meant to signify a trip to an island somewhere, only made the lack of natural light in the hotel more noticeable.
There were 540 beds, two pools, therapeutic and cosmetic spas, gym facilities, a bowling alley, a nightly magician show, a bar area that strongly resembled those smoker's cubes in airports, a 200+ person conference room, etc etc etc.   The pools are the main draw, filled with thermal water.  The springs are what have brought people to Sokobanja for centuries.  It began with the Romans, who bathed in the warm waters here and breathed in the fresh, mountain air.  By 1837 these things were officially seen as restorative, therapeutic and Prince Miloš Obrenović turned the site into a destination. The Turkish slant on it was, of course, to build hamams, which the Serbians transformed afterwards into wellness centers. 
The hotel swimming pool and complex surrounding it are just the newest incarnation of 'spa town.'  This also means carnival rides and pizza places, a pedestrian boulevard that was lively even as the tiny dug-out canoe on display in the public park filled up with rain water.  It's always amazing to see carnival games when they're not in use.  With no crowds and music and lights, you notice that there are half naked women painted on the side of the "Shut Gun" trailer.  You notice just how rickety that ferris wheel looks.  But you also can't help imagine it turning on, lighting up and spinning itself dry.
The bumper cars got a little use while we were in town, on account of their having a roof.  Whenever the rain stopped, everyone hurried outside.  We scrambled up to the ruins of Sokograd, breathing in fresh air and getting our muscles moving.  It was glorious.  The rain began again shortly after and we trailed mud back into the hotel.  The poor kids had been cooped up all day and now had to exhaust all of their pent up energy at a pajama dance party.  A sea of tiny people, in tiny clothing, dancing around to Shakira - I thought of something I'd read earlier that day.  “Sokobanja, Soko Grad, come here old and leave young."  Maybe they've all just been here too long...?  A Roald Dahl book indeed.
A veritable cityscape of luggage filled reception on our last morning in Sokobanja.  Children ran around the roller-bag skyscrapers.  The elevator door opened and behind it was not the usual bather in white robe, but a cartful of suitcases about to topple.  As we sat with coffee, more bags came from every direction.  It was like that final moment of Tetris, when the blocks just start descending too quickly. Game Over.  Finally, it dawned on us that this wasn't just the baggage of the kids leaving, there were new ones arriving!  Like the thermal pool water the day before, a drain and refill was occurring.
The new children were destined to be less cooped up and less stir crazy.  The weather was changing.  The girls smacked around a volleyball and the boys pushed each other on skateboards as they waited for their turn to check-in.  They'd undoubtedly take full advantage of everything this pretty resort town has to offer.  They'll kick soccer balls over tennis nets and miss foul shots on the basketball court.  They'll drink limunada at the cafe tables and buy their moms porcelain teddy bears that say "I <3 Sokobanja"  They'll stow a few pieces of bread and cheese away in a napkin during breakfast and eat it for lunch at a picnic table set up along the hiking trail to Sokograd. At least, I would if I were them.
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