Monday, July 21, 2008

Bosnia and Herzegovina

I was negatively predisposed to Bosnia and Herzegovina by the time I spent in Serbia. The people I spoke to , especially Vlad who was originally from Sarajevo and was forced to leave during the war, and the book I had been reading introduced me to the awkward history of the country. I wish it were not so, but I travelled to our next stop in our Balkan tour with a complete set of biases.
But as we drove across the Bosnian country side at dusk it was hard to hold on to grudges. It was also hard to harbor anger towards people who had over the centuries, created for themselves such a bucolic home. Gazing across such a peaceful landscape as Northern Bosnia, it seemed incomprehensible that such a place could have nurtured the hatred that burst into war in the early nineties. I knew of course, that in fact this was one of many conflict flash points, that many of the people still living in the north of Bosnia, in what is officially - in all but international recognition - the separate nation of the Serbian Republic, still harbor animosity towards the others - Bosnian Muslims mostly. For reasons that were not readily apparent, especially from a quick drive through the place, I knew that the problems that started the first conflict have yet to be resolved, and this land could once again beget the worst of human cruelty. For now though, I decided, I would forget all of the human turmoil and just appreciate the natural and man made beauty of the place. It wasn't hard to do. I put on Chopin followed by an oriental sounding Kronos Quartet CD, and peered out the window:
We passed through a lively town on the crest of a hill. Children played basketball and soccer at a rundown but wholly functional schoolyard. Many other children lounged on the rafters encircling the yard and watched their peers play. We passed them by quickly and the children turned to watch us go.
Below their village, the hills tumbled away from us, mist rising from the contours of the landscape. The damp air and low light blended the greens, yellows, and blues of the countryside, softening contrasts and distinctions that would be present at midday. With such a view, and oriental music flitting in my ear, the mind can wonder and feel expansive. Shapes and ideas formed from the shadowy shapes of mountains, trees and houses until finally darkness obscured everything and brought the night sky into view. A crescent moon peered from behind foliage, reminding that we were leaving Christian Orthodox Serbia and were reaching Islamic Bosnia and Herzegovina.

We arrived at Sarajevo late that night. I worried about our chances of finding a hostel, but we were met at the bus by a man from a lonely planet approved hostel who drove us into the old city, past the massive, wall encircled construction site of the new U.S. embassy (you know you are in an important strategic spot when the U.S. builds such an immense embassy) to a couple of beds in dingy, but inexpensive, hostel.
Sarajevo was hot for the duration of our stay, only cooling off briefly for a few minutes of torrential rainfall. The weather worked perfectly with the way one is supposed to enjoy the city though: with oriental leisure. I, nor Al, could refuse this Ottoman contributed culture of long coffee breaks, and so we spent a good portion of our time sitting around by the Miljaha River bank, sipping on espresso's, Al usually writing or drawing in his journal while I read. We visited the old Turkish quarter of the city where tourists and locals alike stroll through cobblestone streets flanked by souvenir shops housed in original low roofed Turkish houses. We climbed to the top of a low hill in the north of the city, and took in the view of Sarajevo: the river snaking through a steep valley; grey buildings with brown roofs on either side; bristling with white minarets, many recently remodeled after the war, often with generous donations from oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
Our hostel turned out to be a very fun place. A group of English girls on their way to the Exit music festival in Novi Sad, Serbia arrived along with two Icelandic guys, another Englishman, and a Fin. The famous English congeniality - especially over a beer - made our stay very enjoyable.
Due to a tight budget we had been stingy when it came to food, but in Sarajevo we decided to splurge a little and eat out.; a very good choice as it turned out. Twice we went to a great traditional Bosnian restaurant (though our enthusiasm could have been a product of our other less than stellar meals).
After a few days spent lounging about in Sarajevo, we decided to go down to Mostar, a 2 1/2 hour train ride from Sarajevo. On our first attempt at getting to Mostar we found that there are only two trains a day leaving form Sarajevo to Mostar, one at 6 am and the other at 6 pm. After missing the first and not being prepared to take the second and stay over night, we decided on the 6 am train for the following day. So we woke early (so early) and, accompanied by two of the English girls, boarded a rickety train for Mostar.
Mostar was hard hit during the war. It was in the center of numerous battles between Croatians and Serbians, Serbians and Muslims, and Croatians and Muslim Bosnians. By the time the dust settled Mostar was in shambles, and the famous Ottoman built bridge, Stari Most, spanning the Neretva River was destroyed (by Croatian artillery). The city has come a long way since then, but many buildings still remain riddled with bullet holes. Even the skeletal remains of buildings still remain as reminders of the scourge of the inglorious ethnic conflicts of the past.
We stayed over night in Mostar, and in the morning head out on a hitchhiking journey we hoped would take us to the small city of Jajce in the north of Bosnia, and then eventually on to our final destination at Zalankovac in the Bosnian countryside.
Immediately after sticking out our thumb on the road to Mostar we were picked up by an affable guy our age from a town just below the junction leading to Jajce. We talked about music most of the time, and he was able to express his love of Balkans music and that he was in a band, even though he spoke somewhat bad English. At the junction we tried to hitch another ride, but we ran up against lots of competition from others with less baggage then us, so we decided to hitch a ride on a pay bus instead. After many ours of travelling, and one more hitch, we made it to Zalankovac, where we were given a place to stay for free thanks to and the eccentric owner of the "ecological park," Boro.
Boro started on his project to renovate his grandfathers mill into an ecological park twenty years ago. As he tells it, the townspeople thought he was crazy - the still call him crazy Boro, which I think is an appropriate name. They never thought he could attract tourists out to the middle-of-know-where in Bosnia. But he worked tirelessly, building bungalows and an interesting complex of log cabins along with a stage where he hosts an annual jazz festival. Many of his guests pay to stay at Zalankovac, but if you contact him he will put you up in a damp bedroom. One can't complain though when its free.
At this ecological retreat we met another American named Theresa. She was somewhere in her forties and had an interesting story to tell. She had been a very successful efficiency manager at almost all the major movie studies in LA. From this job she jumped into the tech sector right as the bubble was growing. She got involved in a start up that she hoped would fetch her a couple hundred million dollars when the company went public. Unfortunately, the tech bubble burst right before they were to go public, and her dreams of riches came to naught - though I think she was still quite wealthy. She decided to retreat from dot-com mania to Tahoe, where her and her apparently uber-cool race car driving boyfriend planned to build a mansion on the lake. Again her dreams were disappointed, this time not by the markets but by a neighbor, who sued them to stop them from cutting down some trees. The situation, by her accounts, got immensely litigious, until she couldn't take it any more and sold her half of the house to her bf, left her Porsche and once-a-night sushi dinners behind, and began a period of her life where she lived off the beneficence of others.
This is the stage at which we met her. To us she seemed a bit of a mooch, though she decided to describe her new life as a case of the universe providing. The funny thing was, that through all of her hippyish appearance - and she did appear quite the hippy - it was clear that she still had the LA bourgeois mentality. I guess the old adage is true: you can take Theresa out of LA, but you can't take LA out of Theresa.
At Boro's place we not only lounged about. On the second day we were there we helped to do some work like digging a hole for a water pipe and packing hay onto tractors. It was a taste of the Bosnian farming life and we enjoyed it, for the most part. Theresa, brought low by hay allergies, watched as me, Al, and a couple Bosnian youths loaded bails of hay from a piece of Boro's farmland onto a cart to be trucked away to waiting milk cows. After our work Boro took us to a patch of land he owns which he will be converting into an airstrip for small planes. He plans on having an aeronautics party some time soon, where friends of his will fly in from all parts of Europe.
Halfway back to Zalankovac from our farming stint, Boro's old car ran out of gas, so, as the sun set below the horizon, Al and I got out and pushed the car. Luckily much of the road to the gas station was downhill, so we were able to coast most of the way. That night I played chess with Boro's 14 year-old son, coincidentally named Alex, and beat him. I was very proud of that. The kid was quite good.
The next morning we said our goodbyes, packed our things, and headed to the road to hitch a ride to Jajce. The moment we were out on the road we were picked up by a guy who, while not going to Jajce, was going to Banja Luca, the capital of the Serbian Republic in Bosnia, and so we quickly decided to change our plans and head to Banja Luca instead, before taking a bus to Zagreb, Croatia. Our driver was not afraid of a little speed, especially on the curving roads heading down to Banja Luca. At times I felt the impulse to clutch the armrests tightly.
We arrived a little outside Banja Luca at around midday, and walked a very long 3 km into to town, searching for Internet, food, and the bus station. We found all three things, booked a ticket to Zagreb, and at around four thirty left for Croatia.

From Prague,

No comments: