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Bosnia and Herzegovina

When I first found that my Fulbright term would take me to Montenegro, my immediate thought was, “That means I can visit Sarajevo.” Any adult during the 1990s will remember the interminable siege there, the sense of helplessness that attached itself to the name of the city, and finally the relief when the siege lifted and something like stability returned to this region. If Balkan has come to stand for internecine feuds and ethnic hatred, then Bosnia is the Balkans of the Balkans. In fact, Bosnian refers to someone speaking the same language (more or less) that I hear every day on the streets of Nikšić but who worships at a mosque. His neighbor, who speaks the same language but who seeks eternal solace with the Roman Catholic Church will claim to be a Bosnian-Croat. And the neighbor of both these people who plans to be buried in a Serbian Orthodox cemetery will swear he is a Bosnian Serb. But, they probably aren’t neighbors any more. Since the war that added “ethnic cleansing” to the world’s vocabulary, Bosnians of all persuasions have become more separated than they had been for centuries.

I had some anxiety about going on this trip. I didn’t think taking the bus that runs from Podgorica to Sarajevo (the Balkan Express) would really suit the travel that Ruth and I wanted to do. I’d heard that the road from Nikšić to Sarajevo was not too good. But, I thought something like, “How bad can it be?” Just one more piece of evidence (as if I needed more) that life is the schoolmaster of humility.

The night before leaving I told my landlord where I was going and he gave me the good news that the direct road (actually, in this part of the world that should be written “direct road”) was closed due to a landslide. The only alternatives would take us well out of our way, and the best route would take us almost to the opposite side of Bosnia. I made enquiries the next day as I road the bus into Podgorica to pick up the rental car. The bus driver and his assistant jotted down the shorter route, the one that the Balkan Express takes. So, that clinched it. These guys must know what they were talking about. Right?

We made it across the border with no real problem except that we were stopped by police at two different checkpoints. A message? Or just the pathetic fallacy? Once on the road inside the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina (abbreviated BiH here) I stopped at a service station to ask a couple of older guys just hanging out there if we were on the right road. Yes, just go straight (oops, I mean “straight”): “Da, da, pravo.” But then they advised me to turn off a little further up and take a detour that would go clear across the country (sound familiar?). But, the other way is shorter, right? I said, or something that they could understand to mean that. The other way is longer, said one, but it will take the same amount of time. “Loš put,” they told me, it’s a bad road.

You might think that I would have learned, by now, that when people who regularly drive roads that make Pennsylvania country roads look like the Autobahn give out the judgment “loš put,” they mean something nightmarish. Something, in fact, like what we found a couple of hours later. Not just narrow switchbacks through rugged mountain terrain, but crumbling embankments so that guard rail concrete footings hung in the air. And the signs that warn of falling rock mean something urgent here. We climbed high enough that snow still lay thick on the mountainsides and sometimes took over part of the road. At one point as we crept down a winding road Ruth saw shepherd on a bluff looking at us and then shaking his finger. “What could that mean?” we wondered.

About five seconds later we rolled onto a stretch of road was cracked and, completely dissolving. Just as we left that we rounded a bend and saw a police checkpoint and beyond that what looked like no road at all. The police stopped us, of course, and after going over my documents the officer said to be careful on the next stretch and that I would have to pay a 5 euro user fee because the road had caved in. I was still struggling with the prospect of taking the car down into a dip where an embankment had once been to then climb up the other side to pavement, so I didn’t have time to turn over the concept that I was paying a policeman so that I could drive through something that looked like a construction site.

As everything else I’ve said above indicates, the terrain here is rugged and forbidding. And beautiful, though I didn’t have much time to reflect on that. Whereas Montenegro is one mountain range after another, broken by valleys, until you reach the sea, BiH is a country of steep gorges with narrow, powerful rivers eating up road embankments. It became easy to see how the Bosnian Bogomils held out against both the Byzantine and Roman churches, maintaining their Manichean faith until the 1400s. In that century the Turks, who had just finished off the Serbian kingdom, offered them a modus vivendi,, i.e. call yourselves Moslems and believe what you want.

In the end, in spite of the disintegrating roads and corrupt police and skeptical locals, we arrived in Sarajevo. Of course, I expected that we would see some signs of the siege even though a decade has passed. But within a minute of seeing the first sign telling us we had arrived in the city limits I noticed buildings pockmarked with bullet holes. Throughout the city the signs of the conflict appear everywhere. Some of the shell marks on the walkways have been filled in with red concrete, known as Sarajevo roses. Ruth noticed one directly in front of the Catholic Cathedral.

As anyone who knows the city will tell you, Sarajevo is an interesting place. The close and, until the 1990s, mainly easy coexistence of Catholic, Moslem, and Orthodox Bosnians makes the city unique in the Balkans. Ruth and I arrived just as a late afternoon call for prayer began, and we heard the sound of Muezzins from several sides. At a leisurely pace you can visit the Catholic and Orthodox Cathedrals and then look in on the Gazi Husarev-Bey Mosque in 10 minutes. Young women and mothers with the distinctive headscarves share the pedestrian areas with blond girls in leather jackets and jeans. Sometimes you see girlfriends walking arm in arm, one demurely wearing the headscarf and the other letting her hair go free to drive men wild with passion. Rebecca West wrote in the 1930s of the “tranquil sensuality” of Sarajevans. Headscarves in Sarajevo tend to be very stylish or colorful. I noticed, also, that young men took less care to conceal their appraisal of passing young women than they do in Montenegro.

Yet in spite of the city’s exoticism, I never felt easy there. I was tired from the drive and felt uncomfortably claustrophobic in the city. Clouds and fog had backed into the gorge where the city sits by the time we arrived, so we had to walk around in mist or drizzle or dreary rain. The city makes no effort to tuck away its cemeteries with white stone spikes marking graves, all the same age, all more or less new. In the gray, misty weather these seemed to stand out all the more.

And our hotel turned out to be a disaster. Although advertised at a reasonable price, after booking I was informed of other charges—a hotel tax, a fee for linens (?). And then we found out about the charge for towels. I felt like I’d fallen for some kind of con. When would Peter Lorre show up to tell me there was no escape? I ended up paying for a merely adequate room the same amount that I’d paid for the excellent accommodations we had in Kotor two weeks ago. We also ended up buying our own toilet paper, and of course they don’t sell that one roll at a time here (I think we now have 12, apparently manufactured in the Communist era).

The route that we had taken had been so bad that I couldn’t even think about repeating it. We took the long way, the good road. [Here a good road means a decent road, one that, like a decent human being, does what it is supposed to without egregious virtue.] And the unexpected benefit of this was that we had a chance to visit Mostar, to see and walk across Stari Most. The bridge had been the work of the Moslem architect Hayrudin, and lasted from 1566 until it was purposely destroyed by Croatian gunners during the war. It has been reconstructed, using many of the original stones. We also had an excellent lunch in Mostar, felt more at ease there than we had since crossing into BiH.

We had the chance to see a lot more of BiH. A lot more. For all our driving in unknown terrain, though, we only got lost once (This contradicts Ruth's claim on her journal site, which otherwise is quite accurate. Ruth did an excellent job with map-reading and directions and was a great partner.) More like we got confused. We were on the right road, but we kept going up and down looking for our turn. Throughout the trip my directions-asking Serbian (eh, Bosnian) held up very well. The only misdirection came from a member of Eufor (EU force in BiH to keep an eye on the feuding religions). And in this case, the soldier only spoke Spanish. I was delighted. Although he didn’t know where our road was, he told us the wrong direction with such authority that it took us another 20 minutes and two conversations with locals to realize what we had to do.

And, just for the record: the long way around takes longer.


Sorry? Hahaha? I don't know whether to convey sympathy or amusement. Sounds like quite a trip. At least you made it back in one piece and with some stories you can wow people with at a cocktail party or something. Aren't you so very glad you'll be flying to Ljublijana? Good week!

Pictures of Bosnia:


http://community.webshots.com/album/153642136VUuaIH (Bosnia-Herzegovina 2004)

http://community.webshots.com/album/161946528arfSSw (Bosnia-Herzegovina 2004) (PART II)

http://community.webshots.com/album/192678123PWHPSM (The Capital, Sarajevo 2004)

Approximately: 300 pictures


http://community.webshots.com/album/288763255yXnXwy (Bosnia-Herzegovina 2005)

http://community.webshots.com/album/288769971RxThOo (Sarajevo 2005) (Caffes, Restaurants, Hotels, Galleries, Etc.)

Approximately: 200 pictures


Some other interesting sites:

http://www.bhtourism.ba/ (Official Site of Bosnia-Herzegovina Tourism)

http://www.greenvisions.ba/ (American-Bosnian eco-group/tourist agency in Sarajevo)


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