Bosnia, into Croatia and a new recruit (part one)

If there is such a thing as simplicity in life, I have yet to find it. I had lamented over how previous life was filled to bursting with work, emails, social commitments, an over-stretched fleet of interests and ambitious future plans.

“On this great journey we can live day to day, we can read books and write and develop new skills” we excitedly echoed to each other.

We packed a large bag of fact and fiction. We armed ourselves with pens, pencils paper and cameras to record our experiences. We moved and rested through Europe, developing a routine. Despite the efficiency we learned as we went, each clean white day became blotted out by tasks, jobs and unforeseen obstacles. Waking, packing, securing three meals, fixing, apprehending, experiencing, befriending and finding/making a new home; our allocated units of time were quickly spent. Any other spare time tended to be spent firefighting, be it fixing a mechanical fault, replacing stolen equipment or putting out the cooking fire. For the time being, our book bag remains largely untouched. Hopefully the large expanses of Africa will find space for our grand objectives.

It was getting dark as we passed through rural Serbia en route to the Bosnian border, memories of the warm hospitality and beautiful women of Belgrade still fresh in our minds. The radio blared out back-to-back 80s power ballads (as Serbian stations invariably do) giving us an edgy sense of purpose. Squat, functional houses lined the village streets. There were few people about. The border appeared around the bend as a bright, strip-lit gate, beaming out across the unremarkable lowland. Silhouettes of border police paced, stamping out the cold and awaiting the occasional vehicle. We in turn were stamped out of Serbia with a smile and a stare that we have become accustomed to. We drove the two kilometers of no-man’s-land to Bosnia, wondering with interest how the people who live on this stretch get their post.

There was tense atmosphere as our passports were examined. We were given an incomprehensible command from the (admittedly cordial) official. This eventually clarified into ‘green card’, an insurance document. Back in Britain Rich had been assured by our insurance company’s call centre, a lady who had the rushed air of somebody who just wanted to make a simple sale and get him off the phone, that green cards had been phased out and were not needed. This is not the case in former Yugoslavia, or indeed much of distant Europe.

When confronted with such a border problem, one has a few options: 1. Smile on whilst ruffling through papers and files, producing other unhelpful documents 2. Furrow your brows and ask the same questions again in different forms in the vain hope the answer will change with the phrasing 3. Stare blankly and don’t say anything. The hope is that eventually they’ll realise you are some kind of moron rather than an enemy of the state, get bored and let you through. Stuck as we were in no-man’s-land, unable to go forward or back, these were our only real options.

After a period of blank staring the policeman sighed and pointed to the police station where we could arrange a temporary document. All it cost was 40 euros.

“Ah. yes. Do you happen to take cards?” we hazarded. Obviously not.

“All of you are travelling without cash?” they asked, flabbergasted.

“Ummm, Yes?” we sheepishly explained

We had just blown all our Serbian currency at the last petrol station. We tried to explain this as we were passed up the hierarchy of border guards. We returned to the car and rummaged together some pounds, a few euros and even received a donation from a kindly businessman driving through. It wasn’t nearly enough. After about an hour, in a quiet office one of the disparing chiefs took our grubby notes and handed us the papers, looking the other way. We drove into Bosnia.

Sarajevo was still a long way off, hiding in the hills. After an hour the drab, straight streets of the eastern lowlands wound into wooded hills, the temperature dropped and the hours passed. “This would have been a great drive to do in the day” Rich noted as the hot diesel engine chewed its way up another mountainside. Sarajevo opened up beneath us all of a sudden. The valley was carpeted by a thousand orange glows, like a cooling lava flow. We engaged the rushing traffic, used a bad map to good effect and found a hostel in the centre.

A typically refined gentleman in Sarajevo, enjoying a coffee in the sun. Pigeons scatter the square and a war graveyard, one of many, lies beyond in the rising hills.

A well-dressed, refined old man and his kindly wife welcomed Guy and I in as the others fended off the enraged taxi drivers from the rank we had straddled. The place was an amazing three storey Austro-Hungarian town house, adorned with paintings and wood furniture. I ran my hands along the keys of a walnut, Viennese Grand piano. It was badly out of tune.

“Four years of winter’s freezing damp without fuel to heat the house. A lot of nice things were lost in the siege” the old man sighed.

He cheerfully changed the subject, showing me his old skis used in the Sarajevo Winter Olympics and some Edwardian tennis rackets.

In the light of day, the city’s harrowing recent history was revealed. For almost four years the city was cut off by the Bosnian Serbs. Relentlessly shelled, rocketed and stalked by snipers, its populous were trapped with sparse food and water, no electricity or fuel. Nearly 12,000 killed, 56,000 wounded and a city virtually leveled. Despite the rebuilding efforts many of the buildings, especially in the suburbs, remain in ruins or are scarred with bullet and shell holes. Amongst it all, life carries on: The Bosniaks and other residents of the city are cheerful, charismatic and warm. Shops ply their trade, mosques announce the call to prayer, mothers play with children, and old men sit out in the sun with coffee.

I was totally enchanted by the place. The cultural influences of Austro-Hungarian refinement mixed with Ottoman luxury and religion makes the Bosniaks totally unique. We spent hours in tea shops and coffee terraces talking with the locals. The war is still fresh in everyone’s memory, there is still a huge burden of displaced and damaged people but there are also new worries about Bosnia’s floundering economy. They talk about it all in slightly sing-song fatalistic tones, sipping delicious Turkish coffee.

We went out that night. Beers were swilled with exaggerated gestures of friendship all round. We went to a nightclub, which had once been a dance hall. The crowd was friendly and the music good. We noticed the curious tendency, upon starting-up conversation with a girl or group of girls, that a large man would soon be looming around nearby. It appeared they all had minders. When we had met half the nightclub and shown of the latest and best dance moves from the UK we were ready for a Kebab, something the people of Sarajevo have mastered.

During our third night the four of us wandered the empty sunday streets to clear our heads before bed. We stopped on  a street corner by one of the bridges. we watched the water and talked for a time. As we were heading of we read a plaque on the corner building. We had been standing on the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assasinated almost a century ago: ‘The shot that echoed around the world’ and triggered the web of international alliences to activate, beggining the great war.

When our days in the city were done we drove out along the infamous ‘sniper alley’, past the airport made famous by war journalism in the 90s, and out through the southern suburbs. The tower blocks we pock marked with holes, some bricked up, some still with open wounds spreading across the plaster like splattered paint. There were many abandoned villages in the nearby countryside.

We wound south all day through the hills and mountain passes that funneled the wind to such a force as to almost bring our heavily laden land-ship to a stand still. We arrived at the famous Ottoman bridge of Mostar for lunch and pressed on into another pass.

The journey to Croatia was relatively unmemorable. The land became more arid. It was dark and suddenly the land plunged away to the sea. The thin strip of land that is southern Croatia is separated from Bosnia by a towering and acute wall of rock. It was this escarpment that we were now descending. We reached split and engaged the usual hostel-unpacking-posing-locking-food-beer sequence. It would be here that we would pick up our new recruit…

To be continued…

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