“You backpackers are crazy!” said Bata, our tour guide and owner of the hostel. “I only had seats for 8 people in my girlfriend (his van), but my sister said yes to 14, so I opened the back. Not only did you crazy backpackers climb in, but actually fought over who got to sit in the back! There are no safety devices, just hold on to the side. This is the Balkans!”
It was the beginning of our second day in Mostar, Bosnia/Herzagovina and the beginning of a tour that came highly recommended by both The Lonely Planet and those who had already been on the tour.
Two days prior, we had taken the bus from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Mostar. We were traveling off the Adriatic Sea, due east, winding through tall hills, or small mountains. It had been hot and dry, evidenced by the half dozen brush fires we drove past. The fires were a curiosity to Leslie and I, but they seemed to be expected by the locals.
For those of you who don’t know, my last name is Serbian. Great-Grandpa Savo Wokich came from a town called Sanski Most in the northeast of what is now Bosnia. I’m not 100% sure about this, but there is a good chance that when he left the Balkans around beginning of the 20th century the land was actually part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, although he was quite adament about being a Serb. There was no state of Bosnia at the time and Serbia was the only true South Slav state, with Austria-Hungary to the north and the Ottoman Empire to the south. We know part of the reason he left was because he was a rabble-rouser of some sort. I’m reading a book called “The Serbs” which was written by an Englishman during the 1910s, which gives a clue as to how life could have been for Savo and what his history was like.
But current history is very different. There was a civil war during the Clinton administration, culminating in NATO engagement and the breakup of Yugoslavia into multiple countries. I was not exactly sure what all the fighting was about, nor am I sure now, but I have gotten a much better grasp on it after traveling the Balkans. What I knew at the time, was that the Serbian Army under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic committed some rather heinous war-crimes, many of them against the Bosnians. What I didn’t know was how Americans of Serbian ancestry with a Serbian last name would be received when entering the scene of the crime.
Darkness had just fallen when we disembarked the bus two hours behind schedule. We were booked in Hostel Majdas, one of the top rated hostels in all of Bosnia. One of the reasons is free pickup, as Majdas herself was waiting for us with a little sedan. She explained the driver side door was broken as we placed our packs in the trunk. In a well-practiced motion, she climbed in the passenger side door and shimmied over to the driver side before taking us to to the hostel. She pointed out a couple things along the way, including the sniper building, which is an old bank building that the Serbian Army shot from during the war. Most of the damage has been repaired, but this building still had visible war damage, as did many of the others around Mostar.
The hostel was very nice, clean and homey, although it could have used a few more bathrooms. We ran into a couple very tired-looking people who had just come back from “The Tour” that the hostel puts on and highly recommended it. We put our names down for the next available tour, two days later.
That night, we went to Old Town with a group of travellers and to a place called Hinden Han, where Leslie had grilled chicken with mushrooms and I had some Cevapi, which is ground beef spiced and rolled into small sausages. On the way back we found some live music for a bit.
The next day saw us wander about the Old Town of Mostar. The highlight has to be the new, old bridge crossing a chasm, 21 meters above the river below. All 7 bridges connecting the two sides of Mostar were blown up in the war, and have since been rebuilt. The largest and most famous is known as Stari Most. “Stari” is actually the name that Dad used to call Savo, but it doesn’t mean “grandfather”. It literally means “old man” although it’s used as slang to mean “old friend” as well. Most means “bridge”.
According to local custom, you’re not a true Mostar Man until you jump off the bridge. There was actually a diver walking back and forth along the bridge collecting money from tourists, and once he got enough, he’d jump. We got lucky and saw a guy jump in right as we arrived. Even though we stayed within shouting distance of the bridge all day, we did not see another person jump.
Stari Most was built in 1566, but was blown up in the conflict in the 90s. The current one is an exact replica.
There are a ton of buses that come from Croatia on day trips to Mostar that are filled with tourists. They descend upon the city around 11, stay for five hours or so and leave. There are a ton of little shops selling cheap trinkets and whatnot lining the Old Town as well as a plethora of restaurants built to serve the tourists. We generally avoided those, opting for places that had been recommended by the hostel.
One of these was the Ali Baba Cafe, which was pointed out as a good place to get cool on a hot day. Ali Baba is actually inside of a cave and had flat areas and stairs carved out of it. The cave is naturally cool. We had some water and fresh squeezed OJ, which cost 7 markara, which is about $4.
Leslie was also quite a trooper as she agreed to watch Arsenal smash Liverpool 2-0 at a little cafe we found on the side of the street. We spent the rest of the day shooting pictures in Old Town before going back to Hindin Han for dinner. We figured, it was good and good value, so stick with it. I had a whole fresh grilled trout for $5.
The T-Shirt shop we found deserves a mention because of the funny shirts I could read (many were in Arabic). The McDonalds logo with “McCevapi” was pretty funny, but I actually laughed when I saw a t-shirt that said, “I’m a Muslim. Don’t Panic.”
The next day saw us eat fried zuchinni on toast for breakfast at the hostel followed by 14 of us packing into Bata’s girlfriend for a day-long tour of the Mostar region.
Bata’s tour was a combination of history, comedy, culture and flat-our weirdness. The man has an inhuman amount of energy and almost never stops talking. If Robin Williams had been born in Bosnia he would have been Bata.
We started by driving around and looking at the rapid development that has been happening in Mostar post-war. There are laws regarding development, but these are not enforced. Shopping malls are springing up all over the city on land that isn’t zoned for it. A rich person will buy a high-school, tear it down, and put a shopping mall up. He pointed at two or three of these. “Welcome to the Balkans! This is my country,” yelled Bata.
Next, he took us down what was recently the front-line of a battle. The city didn’t like the look of the buildings, so put up a facade of a nice apartment building. That said, there’s no electricity, plumbing or anything else needed for living inside of it. The facade is empty. Next door is a bullet-ridden bunker. People live there. “This is my life!” says Bata.
Before leaving Mostar, Bata took us by a high-school, which he described as a sociological experiment. During the morning, one ethnic group goes to school. During the afternoon, they’re removed and an entire new student body arrives. The schools are segregated. Not only does the student body change, but the teachers change, as does the things being taught. Bata reminded us to make sure you knew who was telling you history, because you would often get different versions from different people. He himself was of Muslim heritage, even though he wasn’t fully aware of this until the breakout of the war. This gave him no other option but to flee to Sweden.
Then he yelled, “Shakey-Wakey!” and jerked the wheel back and forth while going down the highway, flipped on blue and red strobe lights and cranked up the TurboFolk music, which is a sort of techno/folk/pop that is terrible, catchy and sweeping the Balkans.
The tour made its way by an airport hanger, that Bata said was used as concentration camps during the war.
We soon made it to a place where six children had claimed to see the Virgin Mary. In twenty years, a very small town has become a center for Catholic tourism as tours from Croatia and Italy come to see the place where the Virgin Mary appeared. One of the children still lives there and sometimes even talks to the Virgin. She also sells souvenirs out of her house.
A quick bathroom stop saw us switch seats and we joined Bata in the front of the van, at which point I told him that my family hailed from Sanski Most. I assumed he’d be friendly no matter what, being a friendly guy, plus a tour guide and all. He soon learned that I didn’t know any family in Bosnia, nor did I know any of the languange. I told him that my family was Serbian, but that was soon glossed over as he discussed how the Serbians and the Croatians are trying to eliminate a Bosnian identity. The sub-text being, “Sanski Most is in Bosnia, therefore you’re Bosnian.”
He pointed out how the term “Serbo-Croatian languange” is used, even though Bosnian is just as valid as either of the other languages. His reasoning is that denying that the languange exists helps to deny there is a unique Bosnian identity, and if there is no Bosnian identity, then there is no reason for there to be a Bosnia. He said that this is what they teach in Serbian schools, that Bosnia isn’t a “real” country because so many of the people are actually Serbs or Croats. He said he’s had this confirmed by Serbians who’ve taken his tour. The belief makes it easier to justify violence against Bosnia, although he was clear that he doesn’t understand it, for the sort of violence committed is not understandable. Understanding something means there’s a valid reason for it, and there was no valid reason for the sort of violence committed. “Welcome to my life,” says Bata.
Before the war the Croatians and the Serbians actually made a pact, and agreed where the lines to the two countries would be. They had agreed to remove Bosnia from the map. If they had been successful, the line would have gone right through Mostar, with Stari Most touching both Serbia and Croatia.
On that bright and happy note… “Waterfalls!” yelled Bata as we headed towards a swimming hole he went to as a kid. That was an absolute blast!
There was a big swimming hole with a half-circle of waterfalls falling from all around. We grabbed the waterproof camera and crawled around the rocks for the next hour and a half or so. One of the highlights had to be trying and get the entire group together behind one of the waterfalls for a group shot. It was difficult to get everyone in the shot though, so the photographer had to back up away from the group, which took them directly into the waterfall. I got a laugh out of watching the photographer try and say, “smile” and tread water while the waterfall tried and drive them under.
After we gathered back at the restaurant Bata informed us that we weren’t allowed to order and got us all a huge plate of food consisting of salad, chevapi and a bunch of other meats.
We then headed to Pocitelj, which is a partially ruined Ottoman village where we got to crawl around the beautiful old military town. It was originally built as an Ottoman outpost, so there were rock fortifications and houses. Part of the place was falling down, but other bits had been well preserved, and there were no other tourists.
It was also an opportunity away from prying ears and eyes where Bata could tell stories without the risk of being overheard. One of his best examples of how the tensions are simmering beneath the surface is Sarajevsko.
Sarajevsko is a beer from Sarajevo, which is the captial of Bosnia. Meanwhile, the Croats control much of Mostar and run many businesses. For example, by the Virgin Mary site you could buy Croatian flags, but not Bosnian, even though you were in Bosnia. Another example is the local government is keeping the airport closed, so anyone who wants to see the Virgin Mary has to fly into Split, Croatia and cannot fly into the much closer airport in Mostar. They’ve also been changing all the street names to Croatian names if they can.
As for the beer, Croat restauranters often refuse to serve Sarajevsko, because it’s Bosnian. Many shops won’t stock it, and even the grocery store next to the hostel would not sell Sarajevsko until the stream of backpackers from the tour asking for it caused them to stock it.
It’s a great example of how even though the war is over, there’s still a long way to go. Bata’s point, “It’s just a friggin’ beer!”
Another interesting story was how he actually started the hostel. Bata had returned from Sweden to visit Mostar and found two American backpackers looking for a hostel. He had no idea what this was, but invited the two Americans in and soon, they were showing him hostelworld.com and hostelbookers.com. He noticed that Mostar wasn’t on there, so he signed up, filled out the form, said he had six beds and soon, Mostar was on the map. Three days later he was booked full and was scrambling to get enough beds for the hostel in their apartment. Now, the hostel is run by Bata, his sister Majdas, their Mom and a couple of twenty-somethings.
He also told a very interesting story about how he escaped to Sweden, but I don’t really feel appropriate putting that here. Ask me about it sometime.
We wandered the streets, but the highlight had to be a trip up the old lookout tower. It’s more ruin than tourist-trap, so there was no lights except those provided by cell phones. It provided an excellent view from the top, but definitely required some extra care to avoid slipping and falling down three flights of stairs.
The end of our time in Pocitelj saw us get to try local drinks and desert from a family who lived in the structure. They made distilled syrups and mixed them with water, then we all guessed. Leslie was the only one in the group who guessed the mint one correctly. It was actually made out of mint flowers as opposed to the leaves.
This family was interesting because the first time they had met Bata was when he had taken a tour group to Pocitelj and it was pouring down rain. They had stopped the group and invited them all inside out of the rain to dry off. The people inside of Pocitelj had all been driven off by invading armies during the war, and this family was the first to come back. The place was full of bad memories, but she perservered. Her act of kindness went unpaid for, as it would be rude to pay for hospitality, but soon, the Bosnian coffee, syrupy-sweet drinks and tasty Bosnian shortbread were a staple of the tour and she was making pretty good money. She’s now a local celebrity, and has a surprisingly modern home, considering it’s inside of a partially ruined former Ottoman military compound.
The final stop on the tour was Medagorje, a Dervish habitation. Bata was very clear that it’s not a monastery, because they’re not Christian monks, but that might be the most similar thing to it. It was a beautiful buidling at the bottom of a massive cliff, with water from an unknown source coming out of a hole in the rockface. It was gorgeous, but we had been touring for almost 13 hours by this point and we were tired and ready for bed.
We headed home, packed up and went to bed.
As I fell asleep that night I couldn’t help but think about the fluid nature of identity. “The Serbs” book discusses how people would often use multiple identities because the political masters were changing so often. One day, a person would be Hungarian, the next, Serbian, depending on what situation they were in and who they were talking to. I couldn’t help but feel that even in this modern world, for a guy four generations removed, these were still loaded questions. The tensions are beneath the surface, but they’re still there. It will take a long time for them to heal and I just hope they can heal them non-violently. For me, these are interesting cultural and historical issues. It’s something I deal with once, not part of everyday life. I’m not Bosnian, I’m not Serbian, I’m an American.
Fortunately, I was quite tired, so drifted off easily. The next morning we caught the 7:55am train to Belgrade, Serbia.
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