Making the Most[ar]

meliorism n. The belief that the world gets better, that humans can improve it.

 I am a very honest person, often to the point of brutality, but I often find it much easier to be honest to other people than to myself. As my bus hurled toward the unknown land of Bosnia and Herzegovina (one country to be clear) in the early hours of evening, I confronted that very fact about myself and was forced to admit that I was a bit scared. Anytime I told someone from home I was going to Bosnia I got looks of concern and hushed, “Bosnia? Isn’t that really dangerous and violent?” The answer I always gave was, “Well yes, it was, but not anymore. That was twenty years ago. It’s perfectly safe now.” But the truth of the matter was that my fearlessness was a bit of a facade and now only miles from the Bosnian border I had to admit that I was nervous. Of all the places I was visiting, it was easily the most sketchy, with perhaps the darkest history, though none of former Yugoslavia is particularly innocent in that regard. During the 1990s, Bosnia was a war zone and heavy artillery within cities was as common as Turkish coffee.

But that was a long time ago and while Bosnia is no longer dangerous in that sense, I knew that as a solo female traveller I would need to watch my back a bit more carefully here. And I had heard mixed things. The bus driver whom I befriended on the way to Zagreb had looked concerned when I told him I would be going to Bosnia and he told me to be careful and pay attention. But then Holli had eased some of my fears back in Split. Having just arrived from Sarajevo, my next destination after Mostar, she said she absolutely loved it. She, too, had been nervous about Bosnia and while she did admit to attracting a bit more attention than she would have liked, she said it was far from ever being problematic and her stay in Sarajevo was one of her favorite parts of the trip. My confidence was bolstered by her experience, but my anxieties were still there.

My first few moments in Bosnia did not exactly help either, considering the moment we crossed the border and lurched to a stop at the border police station, I was practically given a heart attack. The border police officer walked onto the bus to whom I surrender my passport, and much to my discomfort, he walked off the bus with it. Normally if someone walks away with your passport, you suddenly hulk into a 300 pound linebacker and tackle him, but I figured it best not to question a Bosnian passport control officer. I waited, each second feeling like minutes, telling myself this was normal, that I was worrying for nothing. Then the bus lurched forward and sent my heart plummeting into my stomach. With a panicked “Wait!” I ran to the front of the bus, but the driver waved to the second station ahead. Of course. The man had inspected it for leaving Croatia but it needed to be inspected at the next station to enter Bosnia. With a sign of relief but still considerably shaken nerves, I returned to my seat where I sat fidgeting and clutching my passport for the rest of the ride, anxious to just get there and settle into my hostel.

My mind was again not eased as we descended down into the valley in which Mostar was located. The road into the valley zig zagged its way down a steep canyon with a series of sharp switchbacks the bus swerved around nearly on two wheels. The road itself, let alone many of the hairpin corners, were barely wide enough for one vehicle let alone two (one of them being a large coach bus) and several times when we encountered cars on corners, they were actually forced to back up so the bus could swing itself around.

It was nearly 10pm by the time we pulled into Mostar and, like most bus stations, the Mostar bus station was just short of looking like something out of a horror movie. On the bright side, my hostel was theoretically not far from the bus station (theoretically being the key word in that statement). On the dim side, despite knowing its approximate location, all I could see opposite the bus station where it should have been located was a wall of buildings, none of which read “Hostel Smith” on them. Every so often, the wall of buildings was broken by a dark alley but I was nowhere near brave enough in that moment to plunge down them and explore. As it was, I had garnered plenty of attention on the main street, honking cars and uncomfortably long stares from groups of men that crawled tangibly under my very skin. Holli had been right about the obvious unwanted attention and it was downright unnerving. Not wanting to take any chances, I made my way into the first brightly lit diner I saw and asked for directions through a series of points at the map on my iPad and an unintelligible, “Hostel Smith?” A couple with their young toddlers had been eating in the diner and all of them, including the server, gathered around me and bent their heads around my iPad, discussing amongst themselves where they thought the hostel might be. Suddenly, the owner ran outside and flagged down a car turning down the nearby alley. This man apparently owned the hostel next door to the Hostel Smith and he gladly drove slowly down the next two blocks so that I could follow him directly to the hostel. I waved a thank you as he drove into his driveway.

I walked into the Hostel Smith, which led me into a courtyard of flowers, small tables, a palm tree, and a large powdered yellow house. An old man greeted me at the door and ushered me upstairs into what I soon discovered to be his home. He sat me down at the table and said in broken English something about food. “Oh, no,” I assured him, “I’m fine. I’ll just go to my room, thanks.” But within moments, there was a cup of tea and a bowl of hot soup sitting in front of me. It smelled so good and he looked so kind and helpful that I couldn’t say no. “Eat,” he instructed as he walked into the living room where his teenage son sat watching television. I spooned through the soup and found small chunks of potatoes, beans, carrots, and, much to my dismay, meat. I had worried about this very thing coming into countries with unfamiliar food. Just a few days prior had marked four years of pescatarianism for me. Four years of eating no meat other than fish. And in just four seconds, I would have to break that chain. I weighed my options. On one hand, I really didn’t want to have to eat the meat, feeling as though that would mark some sort of end to an era of self discipline and will power. But on the other, I didn’t want to risk offending his hospitality as I had no idea of the customs or culinary pride here, but I knew that such things were considered serious offenses in some counties. Question was, was this one of them? Telling myself it wasn’t a lot of meat so it probably wouldn’t make me sick and that I had no other option, I took a deep breath and put a spoonful into my mouth. I guiltily found that the soup was delicious.

After polishing it off, not realizing how hungry I had actually been, I walked into the living room, hoping I could get my key and go to bed. I was exhausted by this point. I found his son giving him a back passage and he motioned for me sit in a nearby chair. Being the awkward person that I am, I sat in silence, slumped my shoulders, and fiddled with my hands. The television was playing a Serbian film that look something like the movies we were forced to make my freshman year of high school, shaking camera, bad acting, and all. Unable to understand a word that was being spoken, I took to dubbing the show in my head, creating scenarios that were either hilarious or at least appeared as such in my delusional state.

When his back massage ended, he finally took my downstairs to my room, a cute two sectioned bunk house complete with kitchen that I would have all to myself for the night. The minute he closed the door, I fell into bed, grateful for his hospitality but thankful to finally just be left alone so I could fall into a deep sleep. The next morning, I woke fairly early, wanting to ensure myself enough time to see Mostar before I moved on yet again that afternoon. The previous night, my host had said something about breakfast and not really keen on turning down free food, I decided to go check it out. Back in his house, I discovered a couple of other girls from China who must have been staying in another bunkhouse also there eating breakfast. Within seconds there was a cup of coffee and a plate of these strange long rolls of dough in front of me. I quickly learned they were filled with varieties of things, one eggs, one spinach, and one meat (…sigh). Thankfully the meat one was rather small so I was able to make it look like I was simply full without risking being offensive. I must admit the other two burek, as I later found out this traditional food is called, were extremely good and I was particularly fond of the spinach one. Even more exciting was the prospect of real coffee sitting in front of me. I took a big gulp and noticed it tasted very strange, almost gritty, as though a fine layer of dust had settled in my mouth, but underneath the odd taste it was still coffee and I hastily gulped down the rest of it. Upon reaching the bottom of my cup, I took one final gulp and found my mouth filled with grounds. From the look on my face, my host must have known what I had done and he burst out laughing. “Turkish coffee,” he explained between laughs, as though he expected me to know that Turkish coffee is boiled directly with the grounds, and while he contained himself, I cleared the grounds out of my mouth.

With an overly full stomach, I set out to see Mostar, instantly making my way to the Stari Grad, or “Old Town”, of Mostar. Stari Grads are something just about every major Eastern European city possesses. They are typically the oldest and most historically prominent areas of any city and thus generally the shiniest, most tourist centric areas, at least as much as Eastern Europe really gets tourism. That was one thing I loved about this part of the world. Compared to my travels in France and Italy which are always bustling with tourists even in low season (I can feel my social anxiety even thinking about what high season would be like) these countries are relatively calm. While there is a tourist industry, as indicated by the countless shops all selling relatively the same trinkets, it is not nearly so overwhelming and obnoxious. Eastern Europe is not exactly a place one typically goes on vacation. Those who go there are seeking something more, some historical significance, some deeper cultural experience. Of course I am being overly general. I have still observed my fair share of stupid tourism but at least not nearly in so great of numbers.

Mostar’s Old Town is relatively small, a single loop of outdoor shops and restaurants centered around the Stari Most, a 16th century Ottoman Bridge that spans the gap across the Neretva River and ties the two sides of Mostar, Muslim and Catholic, together. On my way to this bridge, my first stop was at the Karadjoz-Bey Mosque where I paid small bit of money to be taken inside Mostar’s central Mosque originally build in 1557 and still in use today. There I met Zela, the caretaker of the Mosque, who explained to me the process of Muslim prayer and other significant aspects of the religion. I learned a green flag hangs in all mosques because green symbolizes nature and nature is considered good. The white single star and moon upon this emerald green banner represents the sky, which is also considered good. I had never been inside a mosque before though I had seen plenty of Christian churches on my travels. The mosque was not nearly so glamorous, but then again the religious institute is not nearly so rich as Catholicism. Those solid gold walls don’t just appear out of nowhere, after all. The mosque was simple and elegant, decorated with no more than the patterned rug and both the original chipping pink and teal floral frescos and new ones across its walls.

After this, I was allowed to climb the minaret, the single tower that stabs the sky from all mosques. After 96 of the most narrow and slippery steps in slippers far too big for my feet, I emerged into daylight and was welcomed to Mostar with beautiful panoramic views of the city and the mountains sloping up on all sides. I stayed up there for near twenty minutes just gazing out at every little detail, taking in the intricacies of the city streets and comparing its birds eye view to those of other cities. I’ve been fortunate enough to get views like this in almost every city I have visited and I am forever fascinated to note the vast differences between each and every one. In Mostar, for instance, nearly every roof was made of red tile and all the houses seemed to made of the same whitewashed stone. Unlike the vibrant differences in houses in Seville and rooftop gardens in Genoa, Mostar was quite obviously built with a mold. In this sea of rust red roofs were frequent dots of green and other minarets pointing out the Muslim side of the city’s mosques like little beacons. Finally having soaked in the scene, I began my slow descent down the stairs, losing the slippers several times but thankfully not my own footing. I couldn’t imagine climbing these things was something your typical elderly Muslim man did very often. I was a young fit girl struggling to place my feet carefully. I can’t imagine anyone wider or clunkier than myself attempting the same. As I thanked Zela for everything, he slipped a little purple beaded bracelet around my wrist “to remember Mostar.” I thanked him again and continued on my way.

I took a brief break to sit in the white cement courtyard of a historic house form the Ottoman Empire, where I sat at a low table on a woven table and drank another cup of Turkish coffee (this time avoiding the grounds) and chewed on some delicious Turkish delight, all while soaking in the wonderfully warm late morning sun. As I sat there sipping at my coffee and talking to the courtyard’s pet tortoises like the animal crazy person I am, I looked down at the bracelet Zela had given to me and I noticed one of the little silver charms dangling from it was nothing other than a dragonfly. I smiled and thought of my grandfather and my mother and suddenly felt them both with me in that moment.

Having finished my coffee and said my goodbyes to the little tortoises, I made my way into the main Old Town section, passing stall after stall of bright colored woven blankets, brackets like the one now around my wrist, Bosnian leather bags, and shimmering bronze and silver metal work. Everywhere I looked was a collage of peculiar souvenirs and handicrafts: coffee saucers, antique military helmets, model airplanes made from bullets, you name it. While I knew I had little room to buy anything, I simply loved window shopping and observing the handiwork of people so much more talented than I.

I crossed the famous Stari Most where a young kid was standing in swim trunks on the edge ready to jump in to show off. Apparently bridge jumping for tourists is a bit of a tradition here but as a man went around with a hat asking 1€ to watch the jump I suddenly grew much less interested. I watch people jump off bridges at home all the time buddy. Hell, I’m the one jumping at home. Nothing new there for me. Beyond the bridge, there were few more shops but soon the street circled around onto a little side descent that led to something called the Crooked Bridge, a small stone bridge dwarfed by its older brother but charming in its quiet complacency. I settled on the wall of the bridge and pull out my book, thinking of no better to way to spend the afternoon than to do a bit of reading in the sunlight.

On one side of the bridge inset into the stone wall supporting the road above was a little bar called the Black Dog Pub. Every so often a man would come out and pick up empty beer bottles from the table before bustling back inside. Eventually, he came out and started sweeping the patio and waved to me. I answered with a “Hello!” and a friendly smile which had become my default means of communication. “Where are you from?” he asked in a perfect American accent. “America,” I answered,Minot believing my luck. “Well yeah, but where abouts?” Americans abroad are drawn to each other like magnets. When constantly surrounded by a torrent of language you don’t understand, the interspersed English word sends a person acting like a dog who just heard the word “treat”. It’s amazing, really, how just speaking the same language instantly forges some degree of a bond or common experience between you and a total stranger.

This total stranger looked like someone still stuck in the 60s, complete with a long ponytail, white tipped beard, and t-shirt reading “happy in sLOVEnia.” But soon we were not strangers at all. Over a cup of iced non-Turkish coffee, I learned that his name was Stephen and he was indeed from America, originally Idaho in fact, though he had lived in Bosnia for the past fourteen years. His life was something of an adventure fantasy that had manifested itself in reality. After working as a paramedic for firefighters and nearly being crushed in a rescue, he began working as paramedic in hot bed areas all across the world, Bosnia during the war for one. There he fell in love with both the country and a woman and decided to move there, eventually opening the pub at which we were sitting. Though he and his wife were sadly in the middle of a divorce, his children all go to school in Mostar and he happily planned on continuing to live there. As the day picked up and customers began filtering in, he had to repeatedly leave to go make drinks but eventually introduced me to a local woman in charge of cleaning the bar named Jasmina.

From talking to her, I learned how poor of a country Bosnia is, which was not wholly surprising to me from what I had viewed so far. After Bosnia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1995, a lot of money was quickly funneled in and out of the country and while politicians claimed they had no idea where it had gone, they all suddenly had nice cars and houses. Hmm…. The corruption of power had remained static ever since. That is why for every shiny new building there is a crumbling one bombed back in the war right next door. Even older buildings that remained standings during the war are riddled with chipping chunks from bullet impacts. Bosnia is a constant display of dichotomies and it reveals the country’s financial inability to completely rebuilt itself from the war over twenty years ago.

I also learned of the even greater problems central to Mostar alone. As I mentioned, the Stari Most acts as the bridge between the east, or Muslim, side and the west, or Catholic side. Yet for the physical bridge that stands between them, the two sides of the city are separated by an even wider invisible rift. Even during the days of the Bosnia War of Independence, Mostar was having its own war between the sides, a conflict that culminated with the bombing of the Stari Most, Mostar’s most important and prided symbol. Through the war is over, Mostar is still heavily divided both financially (the Catholic west side being much newer and fixed in opposition to the poor run down Muslim side) and culturally. People from one side are actually afraid to go to the other for fear that they will somehow be recognized for what they are and shanked. Behind the peaceful atmosphere and pretty shops lies streets still wet with invisible bad blood. “To me, the Mostar is the one. It is my home, my everything,” Jasmina told me. She herself is Muslim but lives on the Catholic side. “It is a pointless divide. I know many people and stories and to me if someone is my friend then it does matter if they Christian or Jewish or Muslim. They are my friend and that is all.” She stared off into the distant rooftops as the hauntingly beautiful Muslim call to prayer echoed in chains across the mosques. And looking in her misty eyes reflecting the city she loved so much, I could see just how beautiful and wise of a soul she was.

Eventually we were rejoined by Stephen and some other local friends of his. And through all the language barriers and broken English, we sat there laughing and exchanging stories. Our yearning to learn about new places became a common language and it was enough. Before that day, Bosnians were intimidating to me, not only because of the stereotype they hold but just in their general demeanor and harsh language. Today, however, I found that below all that hardness wrought from the war not so long ago lay some of the nicest and most generous people I have ever met in my life. They are poor and modest as a people, but no matter how little they have, they always seem to manage to spread it around, and that was something I had witnessed first hand in less than a day. I sat there for over four hours just listening and watching people come and go, taking photos on the little bridge then being on their way without really looking around them. I watched an elderly Japanese man in a plaid flannel and backwards baseball cap hold out his selfie stick. I watched a girl practically hold a modeling shoot on the bridge as we made sport of counting how different ridiculous poses she did. I watched a young couple making out on the bridge completely unaware that they were slobbering only 20 yards away from the caves that once acted as hideouts and shelters during the Bosnian War of Independence. And the only reason I knew that is because I stopped and asked questions.

Travel is about so much more than taking photos of old buildings and ticking off landmarks from a tourist check list. Those photos are meaningless without the stories behind them. Who is the statue of and why did they erect it? What happened on that bridge to make it so famous? It’s easy to get caught behind the lens and lose the tangible experience so that the memory becomes entirely wrapped up in the photo with neither any knowledge nor sentimental attachment to it. For me, the few photos I have of that bridge (and none of me actually on it) come with the memories of the Black Dog Pub and all the wonderful people I met there. And that is more of a rewarding memory than anything your typical tourist will take with them.