Touring the Mostar region

“Hi D!” Katie typed into Facebook chat as I sat at Madja’s Friday night. “I’m coming to Mostar tomorrow!”

Sweet!

“Cool, I will be on the tour all day — its 14 hours — so I won’t be back until late, but I will see you Sunday,” I responded.

We chatted a little longer and reviewed our upcoming travel plans.

“Do you want to go to Brela with me?” She asked, sending me a link to information on the Croatian beach town.

Long stretches of beaches. Gorgeous views of the islands across the clear water. Forests lining the coast. Ahhhh.

It looked lush.

“YES!!”

She immediately booked us in for two nights.

Later in the evening, David and I were talking and I told him about my plans with Katie.

“That sounds awesome,” he said.

“Do you want to come with us?”

“If that’s alright!”

Of course it was. I adored David from the start. He was a bright, charming 22-year-old who I got on very well with. His company would be a great addition to Katie and me.

Saturday morning, Madja woke up David and I so we would be ontime for the tour.

“Get up,” she said, then offered us some delicious breakfast before we headed down to meet her brother and the group coming from her other hostel.

David and I, along with four others from our hostel, stood outside, waiting for our ride.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Bass thumped.

A white van pimped its way down the street, every few feet lurching on the breaks so the vehicle would dart forward and then rest.

What is this?

It pulled into the driveway where we were standing.

Our ride?

Madja looked at us, smiling. “This is my brother,” she said, gesturing to the driver of the van. “He’s your tour guide.”

Her brother was a whirlwind of energy and emotion.

“OK, OK, OK, everybody out,” he said as the van unloaded.

Ten people somehow emerged from the vehicle.

“Welcome, this is my tour,” he began and then launched into a talk about the tour, what we were doing, where we were going, how the hostels he and his sister owned came to be and more and more and more.

“See, this van fits eight. But, today, it fits 16,” he said, opening the back doors of the van for us to glimpse little cushioned seats, a huge sub-woofer and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. “Get in, get in.”

My group, along with an Irish guy, piled into the back seat of the van. The NON air-conditioned van. On possibly the hottest day in Mostar that summer.

For an hour, we would stop and start and stop and start as he pointed out items of significance in the city and again outside of the city.

Each time we stopped I thought I would pass out. Sweat poured out of all of us as heat stroke loomed precariously above.

Finally, we arrived to the waterfalls. A gorgeous pouring of water from the hills above Mostar. Within minutes, our entire group was in the cool clear water.

It felt incredible.

For 45 minutes we swam and sat in the refreshing runoff from the falls, relishing every moment and dreading getting back into the van.

After swimming, we walked for a bit around the falls, and then took a hike to a rope swing and a cliff to jump from.

Naturally, given my history with cliffs and jumping, I declined the invitation to plunge to the water below.

The tour continued with a trip to an ancient walled town that now had 12 people living in it. We walked along and then stopped for traditional Bosnian snacks at a woman’s home there, where she served up figs, grapes and watermelon from her garden, along with delicious syrup drinks (sage, pomegranate, mint and more).

After  nightfall, we headed to another small city that houses an old “monestary,” where Whirling Dervishes are held.

By 10 p.m. our group had begun to tire and by midnight when we finally arrived back to the hostel, I could hardly keep my eyes open.

I walked in to Madja’s, absolutely beat, to find Katie sitting on the couch, bottle of wine by her side.

“Hiya!” she said, smiling.

Instantly, I perked up.

We quickly made plans for the following day — we HAD to see someone jump from the Mostar Bridge — and then I retreated to my bed to pass out.

Blog Bosnia/Hercegovina Reviews

A sniper’s point of view

Aldina, a girl who worked at Madja’s Guest House, picked me up from Mostar’s bus station as the sun was setting.

“Over there,” she said, pointing out the car window to a towering building with all of it’s windows blown out, “that’s the bank. During the war, Serbian snipers would sit in there and shoot people below.”

Oh my god.

That the building was even still erect was fascinating. It stood like a skeleton with nothing but fragile bones holding the history of the war together.

“It isn’t locked,” she continued. “You can go in there and look around. Just don’t go at night.”

Immediately, my plan was to visit the former bank.

The next morning, I grudgingly put on a pair of socks (hate them) and laced up my knock-off Chucks in preparation for the bank exploration.

Aldina had warned that the floor was essentially carpeted with shards of glass, and I wasn’t taking the risk of having a piece of it planted in my foot, so shoes and socks it was.

As I got ready to go, a tall English guy walked into my room. David. We began chatting and he decided to come along with me to the bank.

There are plenty of entrances to the bank from the ground level. People can walk in the main door, surrounded by pillars that must have been grand 20 years ago but now stand looking like Roman ruins ready to crumble. Or, you can walk in through gaping holes in the side of the building, what used to be floor-to-ceiling majestic glass windows.

We walked through a gaping hole.

The tiling, gone. The carpet, gone. Any hint of character, wallpaper, paint, anything … it’s all gone.

The bank is a shell. Haunted by ghosts of snipers and former workers.

Glass from windows lie scattered everywhere. Pipes and wire dangle from the ceiling. Elevator shafts are missing the doors and elevators. Windows … well, there are none.

The second floor is the most remarkable of the nearly 10-floored skeleton.

On one end, remnants of what used to be offices are visible. Printer cartridges are piled on the floor. Some wooden frames from the walls remain. Desks and chairs are strewn about. And, an entire wing is covered, littered, with documents of all types — books, binders, envelopes containing mail.

Around windows lie spent bullets. Looking out is chilling.

This is the view the snipers had of the city. Of the people who were trying to live their lives without getting fired upon on a regular basis.

To one side if the front lines where buildings still look today as they looked during the war — bombed out, shells of what they had once been. That side contains the old city, the Muslim side. The other sides have clear shots of the Croatian side of the city, the homes, the schools, the parks.

It is eery. It is creepy.

It makes me sick.

After an hour walking through the past, we decided it was time to go and hit the cool waters of the river that cuts through the city of Mostar. Time to see the infamous bridge that was destroyed in 1993, but re-built and is now a major tourist attraction (people jump into the water from its arch).

The next day, David, me and 16 other people, headed on Madja’s famous tour of the region.

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Chasing Angelina

When I was purchasing my iTouch, the girl at the counter mentioned Angelina Jolie had been in town. She was meeting with people to film a movie about Bosnia.

For a few minutes, the girl spoke of her disapproval about the film, saying she didn’t think it was right for Jolie to make a movie about the war.

“It is too soon,” she explained. “And there are other things we would rather her make a movie about than the war.”

Noted.

I went back to SA and messaged Abby, who runs a celeb news agency, sharing the gossip I had just heard.

“Get out there!” Abby had written. “Go get the story.”

Me?

I didn’t have a clue where to start.

“Go back to the Apple store,” she instructed. “Find out where the five-star hotels are and go see if she was there. Talk to people about the movie she is filming. Find out what she did while she was here. Go!”

So, I quickly did my hair, put on my big sunglasses and donned a flowing flower maxi dress to look less Backpacker Chic, grabbed my laptop and a notebook and headed back out into the city, intent on getting the story.

Only I felt like an ass.

The only five-star hotel in town, stood before me, completely redone after the war.

I can’t do this. I can’t pretend to be some crazy fan asking to get the scoop on what Jolie did while she was there.

“Excuse me,” I said timidly, approaching the swanky front desk of the hotel. “I have a question, and it may seem kinda silly …”

“Yes,” the tall man at the desk said, glaring at me.

“Did Angelina Jolie stay here last night?”

“No.”

Dead end.

“Um … do you know where she did stay?”

“No.”

Another dead end.

“Do you know what she was doing while she was here?”

“She was meeting with people to talk about filming a movie. She was looking at tanks.”

Finally.

“Great,” I said, smiling. “Thanks so much.”

I spun on my heels and back outside, intent on finding out where she stayed and needing to get more confirmation that she was here.

I stopped at the bar across the street and talked to a guy sitting at a high top, essentially having the same conversation, except he asked me to please tell Jolie he said hello.

Right. Like I have ever, or would ever, meet her.

I went inside and asked the bartender if he could tell me where she was staying.

Nothing.

I went to another bar. And another. I asked police officers on guard.

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Then, I made my way back to the Apple store, knowing the girl would have the information I needed.

Closed. Locked. Not open until Monday.

Damn.

Defeated, I went to a cafe, ordered a Coke Light, and messaged Abby with the info I had.

“Go and talk to people about how they feel about the film,” she said. “Get whatever information you can.”

Ask them about the war? And how they feel about Angelina making a movie about it?

It didn’t feel right. I had heard from other travelers that bringing up the war isn’t something that is done. It’s not PC. And, suddenly, I needed to go up to strangers and ask them flat out how they felt about a film being made about just that.

But, I did it.

If they don’t want to talk about it, they don’t have to.

A funny thing happened that conflicted everything I had ever been told about broaching the subject — every single person I talked to was more than willing to talk about the war. In fact, they could have talked about it for hours.

Each person I spoke with offered me a seat, a drink, and chatted on and on about their city with such pride and admiration. They spoke of the war, the struggles they endured. They spoke about the beauty of the country and how much they loved where they were.

And, of course, the spoke about Angelina.

“If she wants to make a movie about the war, then it is a good thing,” one 20-something Sarajevo girl said. “It can help people to understand what we went through.”

At the end of the day I was hot, tired but filled with hope. Not for getting the story — there wasn’t one there after all — but for the people of Sarajevo and their determination to stand up together and show the world just how strong they are. And will be.

Here’s to hoping Jolie can convey that in her film.

Blog Bosnia/Hercegovina

Sarajevo … surrounded

My first evening in Sarajevo, I took AK’s walking tour. An enlightening five-hour walk through the city, learning about it’s history from Ottoman rule to today. There were times where tears filled my eyes as he spoke of the war, the mortars, the Sarajevo roses that fill the holes were people were killed and serve as a memorial to the lives lost. AK, barely out of his teens, told his stories with the words of someone well beyond his years, with soul … with pain … with passion.

The next day, four people I had met from the tour and I decided to continue to explore the history of Sarajevo. We hopped on a tram, and then a bus, to the Tunnel museum.

During the war, Sarajevo was essentially cut off from supplies. Serbs controlled nearly all of the city, sans the airport, which was operated by the UN. On the other side of the runway was freedom. Sarajevo soldiers, in an attempt to get supplies, dug a tunnel under the runway. It was dangerous. The tunnel carried wires to provide energy and often times the narrow and low-ceilinged route was flooded.

The four of us first watched two videos in the museum, one showing soldiers haul supplies and people through the tunnel, and the other a collage of images during the war. Buildings being hit with mortars. The National Library with Sarajevo’s history in books, being burned. A woman shielding her baby in her arms as she ran to escape sniper fire. It all was gruesome. And real.

Then, we walked through the tunnel portion that was open and out into a field of grass outside the home which housed the underground path.

A clear view of the airport. The runway.

I looked around. Everywhere I turned were reminders of the fighting 20 years earlier — homes riddled with bullet holes and schrapnel scars from mortar attacks.

After the tunnel, we went to the History Museum, a building which still also bares the scars from the war. Upstairs there are two exhibits — one of the history of Sarajevo and one that shows the brutality via photos of the war – “Sarajevo Surrounded.”

The images were horrid. Bodies with intestines coming out. Letters and pictures from children depicting their living situations. Everything I saw brought to life the words AK had spoken the night before.

To lighten the day, we decided to go and see “Inception” that evening at a local theater.

A few of us, along with AK, headed to the theater ($4 USD for a Friday night screening) to decompress.

After, we went out to Cheers — yes, there is a Cheers in Sarajevo — where we sipped Sarajevsko and listened to the haunting voice of a local as she sang along to house music.

The next day, I finally worked towards solving my lack of music problem. I hauled it to an Apple store and ordered an iTouch.

“It could take five days to get here,” said the girl at the counter.

Five days in Sarajevo.

I looked outside at the water. At the pockmarked buildings. At the sun shining.

I can do five days here.

“No problem,” I said, smiling.

Then, I walked into the gorgeous Sarajevo afternoon.

Blog Bosnia/Hercegovina

The City of Roses

iPod. iPod. iPod.  Music. Music. Music.

The four hour bus ride from Budva to Sarajevo left me sitting in my seat longing for music. The thought of listening to music consumed me as we weaved through the mountain roads, crossing the border and eventually ending up 12 km outside of Sarajevo proper.

I sat in the bus, laptop propped in the seat next to me, headphones on, as I tried to satiate my craving for tunes by plugging in to my computer and listening to the music I hadn’t deleted (accidentally, in Goreme) weeks earlier.

The bus stopped and I continued to stay seated, looking out the window at the small town around me.

There was no one left on the bus.

What the hell?

This couldn’t be Sarajevo. We seemed to be in a small town, not a pulsing city.

I looked outside. My ugly brown backpack that I had come to love was placed outside of the bus, alone on the ground.

Oh my God. Sarajevo?

I quickly threw my laptop in my bag and jumped off the empty bus.

“Sarajevo?” I asked the bus driver.

He nodded his head.

I thought back to the directions Hostel SA had given to get to them — there were two bus stop options, one in town and one outside of town. But this …?

OK.

I stepped of the bus, suited up in my travel gear and looked around.
I saw no bus stop to take me into the city. In fact, I saw little of anything.

Budget, screw you.

Along one road were a row of cabs and I walked up and grabbed one.

My driver was fantastic. He spoke English with me the entire drive to my hostel, explaining where we were, what I was looking at … the best cab driver I had the pleasure of being with since my arrival to Brasov so many months earlier (what now seemed like an entire lifetime).

He dropped me at SA and I entered into the guesthouse, taking off my shoes and piling them with the rest on the floor at the bottom of the steep stairs.

I met AK, who’s family owns SA, first. He walked me upstairs, showed me around and then informed me of a tour he offers nightly.

I had stayed at SA for a reason — the tour. It had rave reviews on Hostel World. I had been tight with my money, skipping out on most tourist things, but in Bosnia, with a history that fascinated me as much as it hurt my heart, money was not deal-breaker.

In fact, I spent more money in Bosnia and Hercegovina than I did in any other countries up to that point. It was my pleasure to spend money there, to give back to the country that so warmly welcomed me, that showed off its war wounds with its head held high, with its residents smiling kindly and eager to speak with me.

Sarajevo, within minutes, had won my heart.

Blog Bosnia/Hercegovina

Trains versus buses — which is better? (The List)

A look at train versus bus travel

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Given the fantastic experiences I had on the trains through the Balkans, I decided to write-up a pros/cons list of taking the bus versus taking the train through most of Europe.

Both can be good.

Both can be bad.

Often times — at least in the Balkans — trains are the less expensive option, so when watching the budget, they are the only mode of transport that can work.

So, travel by train or bus? Which is better?

Why opt for a bus?

1. They don’t have to stop at an entrance to a tunnel for 40 minutes so a train going the opposite direction can pass through.

2. Most times (except in the Balkans), you have an assigned seat. That means the person next to you has an assigned seat, too. You don’t have to sit and silently pray to be the lucky couchette that doesn’t fill up. (Every train I have been on has had one couchette, for some reason or other, that has remained blissfully near-empty).

3. There aren’t sliding glass doors where people in the small aisle can glare at you while they think you are sleeping or reading your book.

4. No one can come into your little bus aisle. On trains, people come into your couchette in the middle of the night.

5. There (most of the time) is air-con.

6. There are stops for food and drink.

7. The toilets aren’t from the 1970s. Yes, most buses don’t have the toilets on-board open, but when you stop for #6, you get to use a REAL restroom. Granted, you have to pay, but is a small fee to know you won’t get some rare disease or have to dodge the grime and gross that comes with toilets that are never cleaned on the train.

8. The lights on the buses turn off at night. You don’t have to wait for everyone in a couchette to finish reading, word puzzles, etc. to turn the light off. The bus driver does it for you. And then, if you WANT a light on, you have your own little light you can turn on.

9. If you stop for a long period of time you can get off of the bus, and tell the driver you are doing so. On trains, good luck finding the conductor.

10. You don’t have to lift your heavy bag into the storage compartment above. It won’t fit. Instead, it goes below (sometimes for a small fee), but you are gloriously rid of the extra baggage until you arrive at your destination. (Just keep your valuables on you, not stowed away.)

11. You don’t have to worry about avoiding eye contact. No one is sitting in front of you and facing you. The only thing you can stare at is the scenery out your window, or the back of the person’s head who is sitting on front of you.

12. The guy in the food car can’t blare his loud polka-style music so everyone the next car over can hear. There is no food car on the bus.

13. At stops, you have a selection of food. On the train, you have a choice of a few very overpriced sandwiches, none of which are actually filling or tasty.

14. Unless there is a problem with the bus, every time you stop, or go down a hill, or wind around a mountain, you don’t damage your ear drums with the high-pitched scraping of the brakes.

15. Buses take less time to get to the final destination than trains.

Why travel by train?

1. You can walk around.

2. You can’t watch the conductor and hope the person doesn’t fall asleep. You just have to assume the person won’t.

3. You can use the toilet on board. At your own risk. And wash your face … if you trust the water coming out of the faucet. If there is water coming out of the faucet.

4. You get off of the road and get to see some beautiful and untouched parts of the world.

5. If people speak your language in your couchette, you can have a conversation. Or a party.

6. Trains are cheaper (at least in the Balkans).

7. You don’t have to worry about traffic.

Which do you prefer and why?

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The City of Stairs

I looked up at the stairs that seemed to rise to the sky. Panting. We had made it up the first few sets of stairs, me trying to balance the very unsteady bag I had on my back. I had specifically taken this piece of luggage for  my trip because it had wheels (!) and straps to turn into one massive backpack. But, it really wasn’t made to be balanced on a back. I could barely stand up straight, and when I was upright, it felt like the weight of the bag would have me topple over, down the stairs and back to Square One.

“Nope. No way,” I said, turning to Chopper, who was taking in the monstrosity of stairs beside me. “There is NO WAY I can carry my bag up those thousand stairs to the hostel. Let’s just go to your hostel instead. I don’t need to stay in the old city of Dubrovnik.”

“Come on, D,” he said. “You can do it.”

I had tried. Sweat was beading up on my forehead, my frustration with my ability to master those stairs with bag in tow was building to massive proportions.

“Chopper,” I said, trying not to seem whiny, “I really can’t do this.”

Instead of agreeing with me to turn back, he grabbed my bag and carried it up the rest of the stairs. I had been thankful for his company the entire time I had known him, but that moment, damn, the gratitude was  overwhelming. I knew if I had been by myself, there was no way I could have done that. There were A LOT of stairs. More than the cathedral towers I had climbed. More than the stairs up the mountain I had climbed in Israel.

Dubrovnik, this beautiful walled city in Croatia, was essentially a town of stairs. Restaurants had outdoor seating on the stairs; bars opened to them; stores lined them. All of these places were situated like they were on a normal walking path, except they were growing up the stairs.

And, even though I was in pretty decent shape, it kicked my glutes into high-gear. And my legs.

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