I had to google the name of this country before I started writing the blog post. And when I googled the first thing that comes up is an article by Human Rights Watch about use of excessive force by police on protestors. It makes this trip sound really hardcore. At the time, that is how it felt. Frightening and unknown, and yes, hardcore. Though looking back, I was never in any real danger whatsoever, not even a little bit. But a scary trip can be good for you, it keeps you on your toes. Fear is sometimes thrilling. In my two days in Bosnia I felt alive and alert.
I was in Croatia visiting my beautiful friends Katarina and Ivan after their wedding, and being so close by I hopped on a bus and decided to take an impromptu trip to Sarajevo.
The landscape from Croatia to Bosnia changes drastically. So does the mood, so do the people, so does everything.
On my bus to Sarajevo I am the only one that speaks English. I’m on an island, I don’t speak the language nor can I interpret their facial expressions and body language. They’re all really mean. Or more likely I’m simply not understanding their stern faces and harsh gestures. I’m choosing to believe the latter. I try and strike up conversation, make small talk and smile at people and ask their names but they only look at me guardedly and move away as soon as they’ve answered one of my questions.
Maybe it’s because I’m coming in on a grey day but Bosnia Herzegovina seems downtrodden. Downtrodden but full of fascination, kind of like Bolivia felt to me. Watching bats dive down around the bus doesn’t lift the atmosphere any. Wasn’t Dracula from this region of the world somewhere? I’m not scared for my life or anything like that. But I’ll admit, it feels insecure enough for me to sleep on the bus with my purse wrapped through one arm. Nothing is actually going to happen. But you know, just in case.
I’m supposed to arrive to the bus station during the day but our bus is running late and after going through 3 border security checkpoints, we’re set to arrive at night. At each passport control an armed guard comes on and shouts at us in a language I don’t understand. He walks up and down the aisles looking at every one and asking questions. When he gets to me he says something and I don’t understand. I get up to follow up him and he takes my passport out of my hand, says something in a rough tone and motions at me to sit back down. He walks off the bus with my passport. This happens all three times. The guard never takes anybody else’s passport. The perks of being American. It makes me nervous.
Croatia looked old. Bosnia looks old and third worldly.
In Bosnia there is construction EVERYWHERE. I wanted to ask if they are re building things destroyed in the war or if they’re simply growing and adapting to more tourism. But I can’t. Because people don’t speak English and nobody wants me to talk to them.
As the bus arrives in Sarajevo I see buildings with bullet holes and parts that look like they’ve been bombed out or are simply crumbling to pieces. It starts pouring down rain, it’s dark and cold and I don’t have winter clothes with me.
We pull up to a bus station, I have no idea if we’re in a safe part of town or not, I’d thought to arrive while it was still light out and ask around to find a good hostel, but as soon as we pull up, the people on my bus all disperse and disappear while I’m getting my suitcase, and there’s no other traffic at the station since we’ve arrived so late. I want to cry. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know who to ask for help, I don’t know where I am. I feel wet and freezing and scared.
Everything is closed but I spot an ATM. Good first step. Local currency, I’m sure I’ll need that. I’ll look over my shoulder while I take money out, I also have no idea how much cash I’m getting, as I’m an idiot and did not even look up the exchange rate before coming to the country. With a few bills in hand, I make my way to a diner at the bus stop, the one place with lights on. There are a few wary people eating meals and when I walk in I start coughing, the smoke is overwhelming. Everyone is smoking. Even the guy working the cash register.
I order a coke and try to ask for the internet password. The waiter doesn’t understand me, doesn’t speak English. I almost start crying. Again. I open my computer and show him where the wifi box pops up and he nods, types it in and I connect.
The first thing I do is text my best friend. I’m all scared and I have a lump in my throat and I hate not knowing what to do. He tells me that deciding to hop on a bus to Sarajevo is like saying I want to go grab a pizza in Iraq. Haha, not the same, but he makes me laugh and I instantly feel better. Once I’m able to settle down I get to work finding a hotel and figuring out how to get there.
With the help of google translate, the waiter tells me not to take any old taxi off the street because it’s expensive and dangerous, and he walks outside to help. It’s still raining and I’m shivering as he first flags down one taxi and sends him packing, does the same with the second and then finally helps me get in the third one. The third one has agreed to give me a fixed price, knows right where the hotel is, and speaks English. I’m relieved. And SO grateful to this waiter. The kindness of strangers. So magnified when you’re traveling and dependent.
It’s not really that Bosnia is that scary. It’s that all I can think about are words I heard on TV when I was a kid — the Serbs. Ethnic cleansing. Sarajevo. Kosovo. Killing fields. War zone. Even the the city names don’t sound like city names to me, Kosovo and Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina, like places you can go. They sound like *the news* and that’s it.